An Inflatable Space Habitat Might Be Launched Into the Moon's Orbit

Friday, 20 October 2017 - 7:37PM
Friday, 20 October 2017 - 7:37PM
An Inflatable Space Habitat Might Be Launched Into the Moon's Orbit
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YouTube/Bigelow Airspace
The big problem with space is that there's not much legroom. Well, okay, there's actually a lot of legroom (that's why it's called "space") but there's no air in all that space, meaning that astronauts are limited to spending most of their time in whatever tiny metal can that can be pumped full of air and then shot out into the cosmos.

Spaceships are often cramped to say the least, as the larger a spaceship is, the more costly it is to get the ship free from the Earth's gravitational pull. If only there was some way to build a spaceship that starts off small, lightweight, and compact, but that soon expands upon leaving the atmosphere in order to allow astronauts a little more room to breathe.

Bigelow Aerospace and United Launch Alliance think they've got a solution: an inflatable spaceship, which they're hoping to launch into space by 2022.

The B330 Expandable Module is part of the collaboration's plans for a new trip to visit the moon as part of what's being called the Lunar Depot, with a large, blimp-like section on the ship that will grow in size when inflated to make for a larger ship without too much hassle (Just as an aside, it's adorable that the above video includes sound effects of little booster jets. It's not scientifically accurate, but it's almost trying to give the video a sci-fi feel)

It's expected that this ship will be part of an imminent future lunar mission, as part of a modular spaceship system that will involve attaching the fuel and rockets for the mission separately. The first step is to get the craft into orbit, before the crew, supplies, and fuel are all loaded afterwards.

The benefit here is that the Lunar Depot doesn't need to be equipped to carry everything up into space all in one got - parts can be added one by one, allowing for an easier launch. What's more, the inflatable ship will be significantly lighter than a traditional rocket, making it easier to launch into space in the first place, and freeing up space for more equipment and supplies.

Robert Bigelow (who would be the president of Bigelow Aerospace) sees the Depot as potentially a useful tool to government agencies like NASA:

Opening quote
"This commercial lunar depot would provide anchorage for significant lunar business development in addition to offering NASA and other governments the Moon as a new exciting location to conduct long-term exploration and astronaut training."
Closing quote

NASA is already working with Bigelow Aerospace to provide a similar module for the International Space Station - last year, an inflatable habitat space was launched up into the sky, and in seven hours it was entirely inflated, and fully functional.

Of course, the ship isn't a perfect solution to astronauts' needs in space. While the ship doesn't need to be made of a sturdy material, all the air inside of it needs to come from somewhere, meaning that it's still costly to shoot an oxygen supply up into orbit to use to fill the inflatable craft. This also means that storage space is needed for all that air, and that means big metal containers.

Enough is gained with this system, though, that the United Launch Alliance is confident that a lunar mission can be attempted by 2022, and that it won't be too long before the technology could similarly be used to take astronauts to Mars in slightly more comfort than they'd get in a traditional craft.

It may be unnerving to think that the only thing keeping the cold, unfeeling vaccum of space from boiling atronauts' blood is a bit of flimsy balloon casing, but for those who are going to take part in the 2022 lunar mission, it'll probably nice to have room to properly stretch in the morning.
Science News