NASA To Try BEAM Expansion Again Saturday

NASA To Try BEAM Expansion Again Saturday

NASA will try again tomorrow (May 28) to expand the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) that is attached to the International Space Station (ISS).  NASA TV coverage begins at 8:45 am ET.  The agency and Bigelow Aerospace believe they understand what led to the unexpected events yesterday when the procedure was first attempted.  Both are very optimistic that the module will be fully deployed, if not tomorrow, then soon.  It will be attached to the ISS for two years, so there is no critical deadline.

BEAM is an expandable module made from a fabric whose details are proprietary.  The idea is that it can be packed into a comparatively small shape, launched, and then expanded once in space, reducing launch mass and volume requirements.

BEAM was packaged to fit into the “trunk” of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule for launch to ISS last year on the SpaceX CRS-8 (SpX-8) mission, but the failure of SpX-7 in June 2015 delayed the launch of SpX-8 until April 2016.   Bigelow Aerospace said in a press release today that the extended duration in a folded state could explain why it did not expand as expected yesterday:  “The BEAM spacecraft has been in a packed state for a significantly longer time than expected. It has undergone a tremendous squeeze for over 15 months, which is 10 months longer than planned.”

During yesterday’s attempt, the module did not expand as expected so NASA terminated the effort.   Overnight, however, it expanded more, one of the clues that friction between layers of the fabric were likely the root cause.  NASA’s Jason Crusan, Director for Advanced Exploration Systems at NASA Headquarters, explained during a media teleconference this afternoon that when operations ended yesterday, the module’s diameter was 96 inches and the axial distance had moved 5 inches.   By this morning, those figures had grown to 111 inches and 6 inches.  When fully deployed, it will be 127 inches in diameter and 73 inches longer than its packed configuration.

Lisa Kauke, Bigelow Aerospace’s BEAM deputy program manager, said during the teleconference that the fabric has “memory” and it takes time for it to relax.  She and Crusan explained that although there were models for how it would unfold, the space environment cannot be duplicated on Earth, especially in terms of thermal forces on the module, so were not exact. 

NASA decided to depressurize the module today and repressurize it tomorrow (Saturday) with the expectation that cycling between the two procedures will loosen the folds and reduce the friction.

NASA TV will cover the pressurization activities tomorrow beginning at 8:45 am ET.

If the module had been deployed yesterday, ISS astronauts were to enter (“ingress”) it for the first time on Thursday.  With the delay, it is not clear exactly when that will happen.  ISS mission operations integration manager Kenny Todd said at the teleconference that the timeline will have to be redrawn once the module is fully deployed and he did not expect ingress to occur on Thursday. 

If something goes awry tomorrow, the timing for the next attempt at pressurization is unclear.  The ISS crew is getting ready to deploy a number of cubesats using Japan’s robotic arm (part of its Kibo module, from which cubesats are deployed) beginning on Monday and Todd does not want that taking place if BEAM is in a partially deployed condition. 

Todd, Crusan and Kauke all pointed out that this is a technology demonstration project.  Although Bigelow launched two test modules on Russian rockets in 2006 and 2007, this is the first time one is being expanded as part of the ISS.  They want to take everything slowly to avoid significant loads being placed on the ISS structure, especially at interfaces between the existing modules.

All three expressed confidence that BEAM will be fully expanded, hopefully tomorrow, but if not, in the course of time.  It will be attached to ISS for two years, so there is no rush.  After the two years, it will be detached from ISS and burn up in the atmosphere.  As Crusan explained, once expanded, there is no way to unexpand it and put it back into its stowed configuration and therefore no way to bring it back to Earth.

Note: This article was updated with the time NASA TV will begin showing the pressurization activities and to clarify that the length of 73 inches is in comparison to its packed configuration, not its total length when fully deployed.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.