Bigelow Aerospace partners with ULA to launch private space habitats

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Through a new partnership announced this week, United Launch Alliance (ULA) will work with Bigelow Aerospace to launch a large inflatable habitat on an Atlas V rocket in 2020. The size of the habitat will be based off of Bigelow’s B330 module, which is named for its total expanded volume of 330 cubic meters.

Illustration of B330 habitat / Image courtesy of Bigelow Aerospace

Illustration of B330 habitat / Image courtesy of Bigelow Aerospace

The announcement comes shortly after Bigelow Aerospace had their smaller habitat BEAM sent to the International Space Station (ISS) on a SpaceX launch. At 16 cubic meters, BEAM is just a fraction of the size of a B330 module, but will be used to validate and test the expandable technology in the harsh environment of space.

“This innovative and game-changing advance will dramatically increase opportunities for space research in fields like materials, medicine and biology. And it enables destinations in space for countries, corporations and even individuals far beyond what is available today, effectively democratizing space.” – Tory Bruno, ULA President and CEO

Whether the habitat, tentatively named the XBASE or Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement, would orbit as a stand-alone module or be attached to the ISS is yet to be determined.

Robert Bigelow, founder and president of Bigelow Aerospace, said that they are speaking with NASA to discuss the possibility of attaching it the ISS. If that were to happen, a B330-sized module would increase the total internal volume of the ISS by 30 percent.

Although this may be a relatively short-term option for Bigelow Aerospace as the ISS is currently only supported through 2024. Once Congress and NASA decide to decommission the station, it will be forced to de-orbit into Earth’s atmosphere and crash into the ocean.

At an estimated total cost of $100 billion, NASA wants to squeeze as much useful research out of the ISS before it’s gone forever. Bigelow Aerospace’s expandable module would help accomplish that goal. In a press release, ULA stated that the “the craft will support zero-gravity research including scientific missions and manufacturing processes.”

BEAM expansion/inflation on the ISS / Image courtesy of NASA

Visualization of BEAM expansion/inflation on the ISS / Image courtesy of NASA

However, it costs the U.S. an additional $3 billion each year to maintain the space station. With their sights set on farther destinations like asteroids and Mars, NASA will eventually shift focus – and budget – to other deep space projects.

Without the ISS, Bigelow Aerospace has other viable options. In order to send humans into deep space, NASA will need suitable habitats for the crew. Expandable modules are especially attractive for these inherently costly missions because they’re relatively lightweight and compact compared to rigid alternatives, making them potentially cheaper and easier to launch.

The company’s expandable modules could also orbit as a standalone station around the Earth similar to the company’s first uncrewed modules, Genesis 1 and Genesis2, launched in 2006 and 2007 and still in orbit today.

In addition to acting a lab for microgravity research, expandable modules could function as space hotels for tourists.

Transportation to Bigelow Aerospace habitats would be provided by NASA’s current commercial crew providers, Boeing and SpaceX, whose crew capsules are just a year or two away from their first crewed flights.

Specifics of the ULA – Bigelow Aerospace contract have yet to be released, but the companies noted that the development of the B330 is well underway as well as its integration to the Atlas V rocket.