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Pumped up: NASA has just expanded the space station’s first inflatable room

Expanding Technology Aboard the ISS
Following last week’s failed effort, NASA has now managed to inflate an experimental habitat attached to the International Space Station (ISS).

It took astronaut Jeffrey Williams seven hours of opening and closing the module’s air valve – plus some help at the end from internal air tanks – to get it fully expanded to five times its original size. That’s six hours longer than it should’ve taken, but after Thursday’s aborted attempt, engineers didn’t want to take any chances during the procedure.

Acknowledging the achievement, Bigelow Aerospace, which built the expandable pod along with NASA, called it “a significant milestone.”

About the size of a small bedroom, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) will be tested over the next two years for its safety and durability in the hope that the technology could one day be used to build self-sufficient orbiting outposts or even accommodation for visitors to the moon and Mars.

Its light weight and compact transportation size makes Bigelow’s module an attractive system for private space companies looking for efficient ways to carry such technology into space.

The pod comprises several layers of tough fabric, including a bullet-resistant polymer called Vectran, which its creators say should be able to withstand hazards such as space debris, extreme temperatures, and radiation.

According to Bigelow Aerospace, it was friction within these layers, apparently caused by the way the pod had been stored, that prevented the module from properly inflating on Thursday.

The BEAM module was taken to the ISS last month aboard a SpaceX Dragon cargo ship before being installed on the space station’s Tranquility node.

The ISS astronauts won’t be spending extended periods of time inside their new room, instead making brief visits several times a year to collect data gathered by the module’s myriad of built-in sensors.

The first visit is scheduled to take place in a week’s time.

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Trevor Mogg
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