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Last Updated: Friday, 14 July 2006, 10:55 GMT 11:55 UK
Inflatable space module puffs up
By Jonathan Fildes
Science and technology reporter, BBC News

Artist's impression of Genesis 1 in space
Cameras onboard Genesis 1 will beam back pictures to Earth
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.

VSS spacecraft, Virgin Group
The Virgin Galactic craft will have space for five passengers
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."


SEE ALSO
Human spaceflight goes commercial
21 Mar 06 |  Science/Nature
SpaceShipOne rockets to success
07 Oct 05 |  Science/Nature
Virgin Galactic: The logical next step
27 Sep 04 |  Science/Nature

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