Inflatable Satellite Launch Pumps Up Space Travel Biz

One small step for an inflatable satellite, one giant leap for commercial space travel took place this week as Genesis 1 launched from Russia and began orbiting the Earth.

The experimental craft, developed and paid for by Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace, may represent the biggest achievement by a private company in space flight since Paul Allen’s SpaceShipOne carried its pilot to sub-orbital heights two years ago.

“This is a small but critical step forward for both the company in particular and entrepreneurial space ventures in general,” Jeff Foust, editor and publisher of The Space Review, told TechNewsWorld. “It’s a rare demonstration that startup ventures can successfully build and launch satellites, something that will hopefully be more commonplace in the years to come.”

Space Inflation

The Genesis 1 craft, delivered to Earth’s orbit by a converted Dnepr Russian missile, served as both an experiment in such a launch and in the concept of inflation as the basis for a larger space station project. The entire undertaking was planned and paid for by hotel industry heavyweight Robert Bigelow and his aerospace company.

Bigelow, which bills itself as “committed to the development and production of expandable habitats for space,” reported Wednesday the Genesis 1 had successfully expanded and deployed its solar arrays for power.

“We have initiated communication with the ship’s onboard computers and expect to download moreinformation over the next few hours,” Bigelow wrote on the company’s Web site.

Lighter Launch

Foust explained the “skin” of such inflatable craft is composed of multiple layers of strong materials, such as Kevlar, that are airtight and resistant to punctures and rips.

The inflatable modules are launched uninflated, then inflated with a small amount of air once in orbit, Foust said.

“Once inflated, you can then outfit them with the equipment needed to carry out whatever mission would be required,” he said.

The real advantage of inflatable modules over conventional, hard-sided craft is the much larger volume of habitable space that can be placed in orbit with less mass than a rigid, metallic module, such as those used for the international space station (ISS), Foust said.

“This allows a company to use smaller, less expensive rockets and/or put a larger volume in orbit,” he said.

Deflated in Past

Despite past efforts with inflatable modules by NASA, which considered the approach for an inflatable add-on to the international space station and as crew quarters for a future Mars mission, Bigelow is really the only company pursuing inflatable technology for space at any significant level currently, Foust added.

He indicated that Bigelow, which ended up licensing some of the NASA inflation technology after budget cuts, may be adding another piece to the space tourism puzzle with the Genesis 1 mission.

“The principal application is for space stations, where you want as large of a volume inside as possible so you can accommodate more people or equipment,” Foust said. “Such inflatable modules could be used for both research facilities or space hotels for tourists.”

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