Washington, Jan 18 (IANS/RIA Novosti) In a move that could lead to a completely new and cheaper way of conducting future space missions, US space agency NASA has said it wants to send an inflatable space pod to be attached to the International Space Station (ISS) by 2015.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced Wednesday that it had signed a $17.8 million contract with the Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace to build the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), in the hope of developing deep space habitats for future missions.
"As we venture deeper into space on the path to Mars, habitats that allow for long-duration stays in space will be a critical capability," NASA's website quoted William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations at NASA, as saying.
Bigelow Aerospace specialises in creating expandable habitats like the BEAM, which will initially be launched to the ISS in a compact form and then inflated at the space station into a 13-by-10 foot cylinder.
The module's walls will be made of fabric making it easier to launch and then inflate in space.
"NASA's partnership with Bigelow opens a new chapter in our continuing work to bring the innovation of industry to space, heralding cutting-edge technology that can allow humans to thrive in space safely and affordably," said Lori Garver, NASA's deputy administrator.
The BEAM will be launched to the ISS through another commercial spacecraft.
During a two-year test period after the inflatable module is attached to the ISS, crew members and engineers will gather data on the inflatable pod, such as its structural integrity and leak rate.
After the test period, the BEAM will be detached from the ISS and will burn and disintegrate upon entry back into Earth's atmosphere.
In the past, NASA pursued the creation of inflatable modules through its own design called TransHab, or Transit Habitat. The programme was ended in 2000 by the US Congress, and Bigelow licensed the patents and began to adapt the technology, Space.com reported.