[FoRK] Bigelow's inflatable Genesis 1 satellite in orbit

Kragen Sitaker < kragen at pobox.com > on > Sat Jul 15 10:28:53 PDT 2006

(This article's text has been changed without any notice before, and so
it may happen again --- here it is)

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/5173388.stm

Inflatable space module puffs up
================================

By Jonathan Fildes
Science and technology reporter, BBC News

An experimental inflatable spacecraft that blasted into space on
Wednesday has successfully expanded.

Bigelow Aerospace, the commercial firm behind the Genesis 1 module,
confirmed that the ship was in orbit and was beaming pictures back to
Earth.

"All systems are operating within expected parameters," the company
founder, hotel tycoon Robert Bigelow, said in a statement.

The water-melon shaped craft could form the basis of a future space
hotel.

The craft will remain in orbit for the next five years while engineers
test the durability of the design.

One of the key tests for the craft is whether it can maintain a constant
temperature and pressure, suitable to support life, inside the
inflatable hull.

Old design
----------

The idea of using inflatable spacecraft is not new. In 1960 The US space
agency (Nasa) launched Echo, a 30m (100ft) diameter communications
satellite.

The huge balloon, made of aluminised polyester, was used to bounce radio
signals around the Earth.

Later, Nasa worked on an inflatable space habitat, known as Transhab.
The design was tested at the agency's Johnson Space Center and was
mooted as an alternative to the "hard" habitation modules used for the
International Space station (ISS).

	
	It's extremely durable and resistant to any puncture or
	penetration
	Robert Bigelow, Bigelow Aerospace

Nasa was also exploring the concept for use on the Moon and
Mars.

Inflatable spacecraft are attractive because they take up less
space on their launch vehicle than solid components and
therefore cost less to place into orbit.

Budget cuts by the US Congress ended the Transhab programme in
2001, and Bigelow acquired the patents and rights to the design
soon after.

Since then, the private company, set up in 1999, has been
evolving Nasa's design.

Space debris
------------

The first Genesis craft is 4.5m (15ft) long and has a diameter
of 2.4m (8ft), one-third of the size of a full-scale craft.

It is built around a rigid central core and two solid bulkheads.
The inflatable walls are composed of a range of materials
including Kevlar, often used in bullet-proof vests, and a
fibrous textile called Vectran.

Artist's impression of Genesis 1 in space
The craft is strengthened to resist collisions with space debris
The walls are designed to be airtight and tough, to withstand
the impact of space debris and small meteorites.

On a full-scale module, each wall would be 40cm (16 inches)
thick.

"It's extremely durable and resistant to any puncture or
penetration," said Mr Bigelow.

To launch the module into space, the craft was carefully folded
so that it could be placed into the fairing of the rocket.

It was launched aboard a Dnepr rocket from the Dombarovsky
missile base in Siberia on Wednesday.

At 0415 Pacific Time (1115 GMT) scientists and engineers on the
ground in the US confirmed that it had reached its target orbit
of 550km (340 miles) and that they had started to communicate
with the ship.

	
	The ultimate long-term success of Bigelow's business
	rests on lowering the cost of space access
	David Salt, Vega

Following a brief health check, ground controllers
started the inflation.

First, solar arrays, necessary to power the onboard
telemetry, unfolded before compressed air tanks pushed
the concertinaed structure into shape. The process was
complete by 0520 Pacific Time (1220 GMT).

"We have downloaded several small images from the
onboard cameras and hope to get more as more bandwidth
in the data stream becomes available," said Mr Bigelow.

The ship was reported to have an internal temperature of
26C. Nearly 24 hours after the inflation was complete,
Mr Bigelow also confirmed that the hull was maintaining
a constant pressure.

This should keep alive the module's inhabitants, which
include cockroaches and Mexican jumping bean moths.

Commercial space
----------------

The successful launch is the first of many planned by
Bigelow Aerospace. Two more missions are planned within
the next 12 months.

They will carry other inhabitants including ant colonies
and scorpions, as well as personal objects, such as
photographs, which people can pay the company to put
into space.

Eventually, the company hopes to build a full-scale
space hotel, dubbed Nautilus, which will link a series
of modules together like a string of sausages. "We
intend to have full-scale modules ready to deploy in
five years," said Mr Bigelow.

However, according to some space experts, Bigelow's
venture will only succeed if others can provide the
transport to get people into space.

"The ultimate long-term success of Bigelow's business
rests on lowering the cost of space access," said David
Salt, a senior consultant and expert on private
spaceflight at Vega, an aerospace consultancy.

As a result, Mr Bigelow is offering a $50m prize to
anyone that can demonstrate a craft capable of carrying
five people to a height of 400km (250 miles) before
2010.

"America's Space Prize", as it is known, is one of many
cash rewards aimed at encouraging private companies to
kick-start the commercialisation of space.

Pilots Brian Binnie and Mike Melvill sped into the
record books in 2005 when they piloted the rocket plane
SpaceShipOne to 100km twice in a week.

The feat won the $10m Ansari X-Prize for the plane's
design team, led by Burt Rutan.

Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson has since launched his
commercial Virgin Galactic service that will eventually
use spaceliners based on the SpaceShipOne concept.

"Bigelow is one of a growing number of 'NewSpace'
entrepreneurial ventures aiming to establish a
sustainable and evolving human presence in space, driven
by the force of commercial enterprise rather than
government programmes," said Mr Salt.

"The goal and commitment of Bigelow and others is now
being taken very seriously." 

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