Everything You Wanted to Know About BEAM but Were Afraid to Ask

8 04 2016

Humanity’s first human-habitable inflatable spaceship, (or as those in the industry prefer to call it, “expandable” spacecraft), is soon to launch off-world.  Tucked inside a Dragon cargo transport‘s “trunk” and perched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, this momentous departure targets the International Space Station (ISS) and is slated to occur today.

The precious expandable cargo is itself a simple test article, (or as those in the industry are keen to refer to it, a “pathfinder technology demonstrator”), which was manufactured by Bigelow Aerospace right here in Las Vegas, Nevada.  Aptly titled the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, the craft is designed to attach to the ISS and stay put for at least two years to see how it behaves.

Now, media outlets large and small, having caught wind of this impending technological departure from the streampunk-like status quo, (where hulking, submarine-like cylindrical pressure vessels serve as our spacecraft shells), are repeating the same, few details with great enthusiasm.  However, general curiosity about BEAM’s design, structural elements, and expected performance is going generally unanswered.

Well, no more.  There’s no question too big or too small to answer, here!  So, for the intrepid of spirit, I hereby present the following 5-point breakdown of Everything You Wanted to Know About BEAM but Were Afraid to Ask… (using public-domain material, of course.)

 

1]  What are BEAM’s pair of small, antennae-like protrusions for, anyway?

BEAM FRGFs

BEAM’s aft bulkhead antennae? (Original credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

While they might look like tiny, satellite-TV-style dishes, these circular devices serve a radically different function.  Known as standard Flight-Releasable Grapple Fixtures, or FRGFs, they’re the means by which the ISS’s robotic arm will snare BEAM, yank it out of Dragon’s trunk, and plug it on to the ISS’s Node 3 module.

FRGF_on_Cupola

A Flight-Releasable Grapple Fixture, or FRGF, a necessary grip point for the International Space Station’s robotic arm. (Credit: NASA)

NASA provided Bigelow Aerospace with two FRGFs to install on BEAM as part of their contract.  Think of them as the receiving half of an enormous robotic handshake upon BEAM’s arrival at the ISS.

 

2]  What about the sleek, wavy metal collar on the ‘hatch’ side of BEAM?

BEAM PCBM

Sleek style or something more? (Original credit: SpaceX)

As it turns out, this eye-catching part of BEAM’s exterior was manufactured by the Sierra Nevada Corporation and is known as a Passive Common Berthing Mechanism, or (you guessed it), a PCBM.  This is a standard mechanism for unpowered craft that can’t dock to the ISS using their own thrusters and must therefore be snatched up by the ISS’s robotic arm and manually ‘plugged in’ to one of the station’s active ports.

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A Passive Common Berthing Mechanism, necessary for forming a tight seal with the International Space Station. (Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation)

The PCBM was supplied to Bigelow Aerospace by the Sierra Nevada Corporation as part of the NASA BEAM contract, and it was integrated into BEAM’s structure at Bigelow’s large North Las Vegas facility.

 

3]  So, what are BEAM’s walls actually made of?

BEAM softgoods

What makes sturdy spacecraft skin that can also crumple and fold for launch? (Original credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

Bigelow hasn’t released the specifics of the makeup of BEAM’s fabric walls, known as “softgoods.”  (Holding this extremely proprietary information close to the vest is unsurprising.)  However, despair not, curiosity-fueled space enthusiasts, for it turns out that much basic information about the Bigelow expandable spacecraft approach was published in a 2005 article in Popular Science, entitled, “The Five-Billion-Star Hotel.”

In the article, the walls of the expandable Bigelow “Nautilus” module under development at the time (later to be rechristened the B330 spacecraft) were described as having the following basic structure:

  1. “Five outer layers of graphite-fiber composites separated by foam spacers” that function as a micrometeorite and orbital debris (MMOD) shield.
  2. Moving inward, this is followed by a critical, intermediate layer known as the “restraint layer,” which serves as the load-bearing portion of the structure.  This layer is described as “a web of interwoven straps made of high-strength fiber.”
  3. Finally, the innermost layer, called the “air bladder,” is a “plastic film” that “keeps the internal atmosphere from escaping into space.”

Admittedly, it has been some time since the article was written, and details may have shifted somewhat in the intervening years.  -But, in a general sense, BEAM could be reasonably expected to follow the same sort of structural format.

For something a little more recent, one can also argue for a fairly close approximation of BEAM’s softgoods in another, modern inflatable spacecraft design.  European aerospace titan Thales Alenia Space (TAS), (responsible for the design and manufacture of the rigid shell backbones of the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicle supply ships as well as the Cygnus cargo freighters, and others), has its own inflatable spacecraft design known as REMSIM.

REMSIM

A 2005 rendering of a REMSIM inflatable module, envisioned as a lunar habitat. (Credit: Thales Alenia Space)

Just as BEAM could be considered offspring of the cancelled NASA TransHab program, from which it inherited much of its technology and approach, so too does REMSIM descend from TransHab, making it a sort of European cousin to BEAM.   Standing for “Radiation Exposure and Mission Strategies for Interplanetary (Manned) Mission,” REMSIM was effectively the European Space Agency’s push (like Bigelow) to carry the TransHab torch into the 21st Century.  (REMSIM research and development is ongoing to this day.)

In landmark 2009 research presented at the International Symposium on Materials in a Space Environment, led by TAS researcher Roberto Destefanis, the REMSIM layers are revealed (and put through their paces).

Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 7.15.18 AM

Softgoods layering details of the inflatable REMSIM spacecraft, a European cousin to Bigelow Aerospace’s BEAM. (Credit: Destefanis et al., 2009)

In the above diagram, MLI stands for Multi-Layer Insulation (think heat shield), BS stands for Ballistic Shield layer, and the rest are as described.  As can be seen, they generally agree with the Popular Science description of the Bigelow approach.

So, odds are, if you want to know what’s inside BEAM’s collapsible/expandable spacecraft skin, the REMSIM “stack” isn’t a bad place to start.

 

4]  Can BEAM really shield well against micrometeorite and orbital debris strikes?

BEAM MMOD

Will BEAM’s soft sides stand up to space impacts? (Original credit: NASA JSC)

When many are introduced to the concept of an inflatable spacecraft, a natural first reaction is alarm.  On Earth, most inflatable objects are very vulnerable to punctures and ruptures (e.g., party balloons).  Wouldn’t an inflatable spacecraft be far more vulnerable than rigid aluminum modules to micrometeorites and bits of space junk zipping around at mind-bending orbital speeds?

Well, much like a Kevlar vest has no problem stopping a bullet, it turns out that expandable spacecraft have no problem holding their own against impinging space chunks.  While specific information on how well BEAM’s softgoods hold up under punishment is proprietary, we can return once again to REMSIM for a good example.

IMG_2980

The aftermath of a micrometeorite impact test on a BEAM-similar expandable spacecraft design known as REMSIM, demonstrating that the inner layer remains unscathed. (Credit: Thales Alenia Space)

The Bigelow debris shielding approach, like REMSIM, uses what is called a Multi-Shock strategy.  Here, multiple thin, ballistic shield layers separated by some distance act to “shock” the incoming projectile and disperse its energy before it strikes (and potentially breaches) the pressure containment layer.

So, again returning to the 2009 Destefanis paper, REMSIM softgoods test articles boasted surviving getting blasted with half-inch aluminum spheres at speeds exceeding 15,000 miles per hour.  (This agrees with claims made in the aforementioned 2005 Popular Science article, which reports that Bigelow softgoods withstood a half-inch aluminum sphere impacting at better than 14,000 miles per hour.)  Not too shabby at all, and according to the research, meets or exceeds the debris protection performance of rigid ISS modules using traditional “stuffed” Whipple Shields.

This implies that BEAM’s protection factor against micrometeorites and debris is just fine, if not outright superior to rigid modules.

 

5]  What sort of radiation protection should we expect from BEAM?

BEAM Rad

This has been a big question, and one NASA has expressed particular interest in.  In fact, it’s one of the primary functions of BEAM to determine just how favorable the radiation protection qualities of a softgoods spacecraft are.

The problem with space radiation is that it is generally more massive and highly energetic compared to ionizing radiation encountered on Earth’s surface, which makes it difficult to shield.

The problem with talking about space radiation shielding is that it depends on a boatload of variables — the more active our Sun, the more it deflects even more damaging radiation from exploding stars in our own Galaxy (and beyond) but trades it for an increased risk of being hit with lower-energy but overwhelming solar storms.

tumblr_o53txgrsvO1tnfmy1o1_1280

Artist’s depiction of solar and cosmic radiation at the fringe of Earth’s magnetic field. (Uncredited)

Blanket statements about how anything shields radiation in space are therefore difficult to reliably make, requiring multiple models and depending strongly on orbit altitude, timing, and precise material breakdown.  As a result, experts tend to either sound uncertain or evasive.

Keeping all of this in mind, if we return to the 2009 Destefanis study one final time, we find it has something to say about this as well.

By placing test articles meant to represent different types of spacecraft and spacecraft materials in front of particle accelerators powerful enough to fling atoms as large and fast as those fired into the cosmos by exploding stars, researchers can reliably predict how materials will shield against space radiation.  This is exactly what the Destefanis study reports, using an iron-atom slinging accelerator at Brookhaven National Lab.

Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 10.01.10 AM

Expected shielding performance of BEAM-like REMSIM compared with varying thicknesses of different materials and ISS module compositions. (Credit: Destefanis et al., 2009)

The results of the Destefanis work reveal that against the most damaging type of radiation experienced at the ISS (heavy Galactic Cosmic Rays), REMSIM shields nearly half as well (3%) as an empty ISS module (8.2%).  It achieves this with less than a third of the equivalent mass, demonstrating a pound-for-pound benefit in REMSIM’s favor, not to mention the unprecedented capability of squeezing into a tiny payload space during launch.

In a big-picture sense, the chart also reveals that REMSIM shields only 10% as well against heavy GCR as a fully-outfitted ISS module (3% versus 28.7%).  While this might sound terrible at first glance, this is due largely to the fact that Columbus is currently far from empty, ringed with equipment racks, piping, tubing, cabling, and supplies.  All of this extra material serves as supplemental shielding for astronauts located within.

By contrast, the basic REMSIM in this study is (like BEAM) completely empty, making the “10%” claim a somewhat unfair apples-to-oranges comparison.  However, numbers like these more closely match the current situation between BEAM and the rest of ISS.

So, ultimately, if the REMSIM-BEAM comparison holds, one might expect a similar ratio between GCR-radiation shielding measurements made in BEAM and parallel readings taken across the rest of the ISS.  And while the numbers might sound grim to the uninitiated, numbers like these are going to be exactly what NASA is looking for.

_________

I hope the information compiled in this post has been helpful at least to some, and as always, feedback is welcome.

Semper Exploro!

 





Red-Letter Day: NASA Astronauts wanted; NSRC spaceflight giveaway

15 11 2011

Today has been quite a big day for aspiring astronauts:

NASA Seeks New Wave of Astronauts

Prototypical astronauts Tom Stafford and Alan Shepard Jr. studying a mission chart, Dec 1965. (Credit: NASA)

On one hand, NASA finally opened another selection announcement for the next class of astronauts.  Until the end of January 2012, anyone with the grit, drive, and the moxie to put their hat in the ring will be stacked up against the best of the best for a handful of new astronaut positions.

Contrary to what many believe in the post-Shuttle NASA environment, what awaits these future spacefarers is more than just maintaining the International Space Station, showing up at press appearances, and performing (much needed) education public outreach.  …NASA is also hard at work, developing a new, Apollo-style spacecraft intended for deep space missions (Orion MPCV) while exploring the possibility of using it to visit and explore near-Earth asteroids.

-Not to mention that these new astronauts will also be on the cusp of helping to break open a new era of commercial spaceflight.  (For more information on the many developments there, see CCDev to get started.)

Not a bad time to get involved, all things considered.

Spaceflight Giveaway for Next-Generation Suborbital Researcher

The XCOR Lynx suborbital vehicle. (Credit: XCOR Aerospace)

As if that weren’t excitement enough for the day, on the commercial spaceflight front, the Southwest Research Institute announced a partnership with XCOR Aerospace to offer a free suborbital spaceflight to one exceedingly lucky attendee at the next Next-Generation Suborbital Researcher’s Conference (NSRC)!

That’s right, a research seat in a spacecraft may be yours for the cost of attending and participating in the conference, slated for the end of February 2012.  The only obligations of the winner are to find their own way to the waiting spacecraft and create and provide an experiment for the trip.

The NSRC, the third conference of its kind, brings together commercial spaceflight industry pioneers, regulators, and both private and federal researchers to explore the opportunities and possibilities presented by the many private suborbital spacecraft currently in development.

For more info, visit nsrc.swri.org – and sign up!  (I can speak from personal experience: the conference last year was thrilling to those for whom spaceflight and microgravity research holds an appeal.)





Excalibur back in British Isles!

23 02 2011

One of the two Excalibur Alamz Limited (EA) space stations being delivered to the Isle of Man. (Credit: JCK, Ltd, IOM)

…commercial spacecraft manufacturer/provider Excalibur Almaz (EA), that is.  And they ferried two partially-constructed commercial space stations with them.

The Almaz Crew Module as premiered in Russia earlier this year. (Credit: Excalibur Almaz)

A primary competitor to Bigelow Aerospace on the commercial space station frontier, EA has leveraged 20th-Century Russian military space technology in a bid to accelerate a fully-functioning private spaceflight program to orbit.  Because it is based on preexisting technology, (which was originally known as “Almaz,”) primary elements of the spaceflight system have already been through flight testing, giving EA a distinct research and development (i.e., cost) advantage.  They’re currently working to update the Almaz space system.

Should EA’s number of flights grow to six a year or more, (according to their recent press release,) it would be economically-feasible for them to launch and sustain the legacy space stations on-orbit for government and academic research as well as space tourism.

If EA is able to complete their modernizations quickly, they’d be at a distinct advantage compared to Bigelow in that EA is developing both spacecraft and space stations as part of their program.

Bigelow is reliant on someone else’s spacecraft to reach their inflatable habitats.





Bigelow Aerospace preps new digs

22 02 2011

Rendering of a commercial space station composed of Bigelow Aerospace inflatable modules. (Credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

It appears, in the interest of furnishing the new space digs (read: inflatable orbital space modules) they’re poised to launch, Bigelow Aerospace has secured a partially exclusive license from NASA.

The license is for the cryptically entitled, “Apparatus For Integrating A Rigid Structure Into A Flexible Wall Of An Inflatable Structure,” – or as I read it, “Fancy brackets to allow walls and floors to unfold as an inflatable module inflates.”

This is what one would need to, say, loft a station complete with prefabricated compartments – ready for commercial customers and occupants.

To me, this is a very exciting development, especially on the heels of NASA’s recent hint that Bigelow might be providing one of its modules to test on the International Space Station.  This means imminent progress.  A company wouldn’t pay to license technology without the reasonable expectation of a turnaround, and sooner rather than later.

The advent of the private space station appears to be completely on track.





Liberating Ares in commercial rocket fray

10 02 2011

Rendering of the Liberty Launch Vehicle. (Credit: ATK)

The NewSpace rocket environment is growing from a band of determined forerunners to a healthy platoon.  Salvaging what they could from NASA’s cancelled Ares I rocket, industry giant ATK (responsible for building Space Shuttle’s solid rocket boosters, a critical component in the Ares rocket design,) has teamed up with Eurpoean company Astrium (of Ariane 5 fame) to develop a new vehicle: Liberty.

Maiden launch of NASA's Ares I-X rocket in 2009. (Credit: NASA)

The vehicle, which will marry ATK’s bottom booster stages with an updated version of Ariane’s second stage and fairing, is the latest in an increasingly-heated competition for NASA contacts to ferry crew and cargo to the International Space Station after the retirement of the Space Shuttle.  Highly reminiscent of the Ares I design, Liberty joins the competetive ranks of commercial rockets such as SpaceX’s Falcon IX, Boeing’s Delta IV, the Russian Proton, and Lockheed’s Atlas V.

I am personally glad to see the Ares expertise utilized in a commercial design, and we who hope for widening access to space couldn’t hope for a better situation – one increasingly likely to stimulate competetive rocket vehicle pricing, innovation, and development.





Bigelow Aerospace accelerates station plans

17 12 2010

Sundancer, Bigelow Aerospace's proposed first habitable module. (Credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

Recently, two companies have arisen to challenge Bigelow Aerospace’s  domination of the commercial space station market.  Now, quietly, Bigelow has fired back where it hurts most: Timeframe.

It seems that the first to get a station to orbit will be in a position to pluck the ripest government and corporate space station user contracts.  In this light, Bigelow faces serious, direct competition against the likes of Excalibur Almaz of the British Isles and Russia’s Orbital Technologies, who have each come out and declared a target year of 2015 for launch and deployment of their own stations.

While before the economic collapse Bigelow’s target launch date for Sundancer was 2010, it should come as no surprise that Bigelow’s more recent target date for lofting human-habitable modules was also 2015.

Now, only a few months after Almaz and Orbital Tech announced their station plans, a quick check of Bigelow Aerospace’s Sundancer module page now lists 2014 as their targeted launch date.  Because Bigelow already has hardware built and launched, I believe them when they shift up a timetable.  The operations and capabilities of Excalibur Almaz and Orbital Technologies are a little more nebulous – I imagine their 2015 date is being optimistic.

Will either be able to up the ante on Bigelow and declare a 2013 target launch date?  Time will tell.  However, any competition that can accelerate the deployment of additional destinations in space, even by only a year, is fantastic in my book.

Ad Astra, space station manufacturers.  Ad Astra.





A Radioactive Astronaut-Hopeful (Space update)

20 11 2010

Me probing an old military well in the Nevada wilderness for geologic data.

By education and trade, I’m a geologist, having worked now in the professional world for more than six years getting my boots dirty performing hydrogeology, water resources, drilling, geomorphology research, and environmental contaminant transport and remediation work in some of the most remote territory this country has to offer.  However, in my push toward becoming an astronaut, one may wonder why I suddenly think it’s a good idea to be working as a radiological engineer and pursuing graduate work in Radiation Health Physics (in addition to my Space Studies work at UND).

Why not study something more direct, like Planetary Geology (Astrogeology)?

The answer, while seemingly obscure, is simple:  What does geology, outer space, the Moon’s surface, Mars’s surface, and advanced spacecraft power and propulsion systems all have in common?  Radioactivity.

Boltwoodite and Torbernite, uranium-bearing mineral samples. (Credit: Ben McGee)

On Earth, (and other heavy rocky bodies,) radioactivity is a natural occurrence.  Plants (and even human beings) all beam out radioactive gamma rays from a natural isotope of Potassium.  (This is prevalent enough that you can calibrate your instruments to it in the wild.)  Even more to the point, radioactive Uranium and Thorium are more common in the Earth’s crust than Gold or Silver.  These elements are crucial to determining the ages of rocks.

Now, go farther.  As we move outside the Earth’s protective magnetic field, (i.e., orbit, Moon, Mars, and everything beyond and in-betwixt,) cosmic and solar radiation are essentially the greatest hazards an astronaut may face.  Radiation shielding and measurement are of primary importance.

Illustration of a manned NTR exploration spacecraft and landing capsule in Mars orbit. (Credit: Douglas/Time Magazine, 1963)

Farther still, once a spacecraft travels beyond about Mars, the intensity of sunlight is such that solar panels are inadequate to supply necessary power.  Nuclear reactors, (Radioisotope-Thermoelectric Generators, or RTGs,) are necessary.

Plus, in order to get out that far (to Mars or beyond) in a reasonable amount of time, our chemical rockets won’t provide enough kick.  Instead, Nuclear Thermal Rockets (NTRs) are about the most efficient way to go, something I’m in the midst of researching in earnest.

Hence, in addition to having experience as a field geologist (for future visits to the Moon, Mars, asteroids, etc.,) being trained to swing a radiation detector around, understanding the exact hazards radiation poses and how it works, and knowing your way around a nuclear reactor are all uniquely suited to space exploration.

Admittedly, it’s an unconventional path, but it’s my path: Riding gamma rays to the stars.








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