Inflatable spacecraft enjoys smooth sailing so far
BY STEPHEN CLARK
Posted: July 14, 2006
The mission of Bigelow Aerospace's revolutionary prototype space habitat launched Wednesday has gone smoothly through its first day in orbit. The program's founder said the success achieved so far has been an exhilarating experience for his team before they set off to begin a comprehensive testing regimen on the inflatable space station pathfinder.
The craft - called Genesis 1 - marks the birth of Bigelow's grand commercial space adventure that should culminate in the construction of the industry's first private space station by 2015.
Real estate and hotel tycoon Robert Bigelow founded the company in 1999, and has since invested over $75 million of his fortune into the project. Upwards of $500 million could be needed by 2015.
Bigelow said he was pleasantly surprised how smooth the mission has gone in the first day of operations. He said he expected at least a few problems to be on his mind at this point in the mission, but so far none.
"We were more prepared actually for failure than we were for success," he said in a phone interview Thursday.
Launched on Wednesday atop a Dnepr rocket flown from a Russian missile base, Genesis 1 quickly got to work to ready for its mission. Compressed air in tanks attached to the spacecraft rushed into the module, inflating it to a total interior volume of over 100 cubic meters.
Readings from inside the demonstrator's habitat showed an average pressure of about seven-and-a-half pounds per square inch. The pressure was well inside allowable limits, which extend up to around 10 psi.
Engineers monitoring the mission from a control center just north of Las Vegas also confirmed the deployment of the solar panels necessary for electricity production.
Since then, controllers have received four images from the array of 13 color cameras mounted both inside and outside the spacecraft. These pictures - all from the exterior - show Genesis 1 in its normal state, with the habitat expanded against the blackness of space.
Bigelow said the cameras positioned outside the module have been affected by poor resolution due to glare and other phenomena. The team is still looking to see the Genesis 1 name on the outer hull of the craft, and a few colors have been off, according to Bigelow.
Despite these minor issues, Bigelow seemed thrilled with the performance of the cameras as he explained details in each image. One clearly showed stars and another had a strange comet-like feature near the edge of the photo, Bigelow said.
Interior shots from cameras inside the inflated module will soon be coming down to Earth. But first, controllers must establish a stable communications link with Genesis 1 through an S-band antenna.
Much of the communication so far between Las Vegas-based ground control and Genesis 1 has been through UHF and VHF radio systems, which are primarily used to relay telemetry data.
The S-band communications system allows the spacecraft to beam back data and images more rapidly than UHF or VHF. Once a good connection is made, images should flood into Bigelow's mission control room. When this occurs, a page on the company's web site will begin to refresh daily with new photos from the orbiting module.
Tracking of the module has gone exceedingly well through the Global Positioning System and the U.S. Air Force. However, on Wednesday night ground stations had a difficult time acquiring radio signals from the craft as it soared overhead. Analysis by Bigelow's engineers showed the problem was likely caused by interference from a nearby propulsion module from the Dnepr rocket's upper stage.
NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) told us we had Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 in orbit, Bigelow joked.
In reality, Genesis 2 will join its sister-ship in space by the end of the year if all goes well. That mission will carry the first commercial payloads into orbit for Bigelow Aerospace.
Genesis 2 will include a program called "Fly Your Stuff" for customers to send up to five personal photos or other miniature items into space for $295 per object. Bigelow operates an online registration system for anyone to sign up to participate.
The Genesis modules are one-third scale models of the super-habitat called the BA 330 now under development by Bigelow Aerospace. Also known as the Nautilus, the spacecraft will inflate to a total volume of 330 cubic meters. These modules will serve as the building blocks for Bigelow's first private space station, due to be operational by 2015.
Bigelow Aerospace plans a methodical approach to demonstrate their hardware and designs throughout the next five years, and other spacecraft will be launched to test modules almost half the size of the BA 330 before the full-scale model is flown.
Inflatable space station modules offer a significant mass benefit over traditional spacecraft covered in a hard outer shell. This allows larger station components to be hauled into orbit using smaller rockets.
Bigelow's modules are outfitted with protective skin to guard against high-speed impacts from tiny specks of space junk or small micrometeoroids that pose a threat to all satellites in Earth orbit.