Inflatable Habitat Reaches Orbit

Robert Bigelow’s dream of a thriving space tourism industry took a significant step forward today with the launch of the Genesis 1 experimental spacecraft. Bigelow Aerospace reported that the prototype habitat was successfully lofted into orbit atop a converted Russian inter-continental ballistic missile. Once in orbit, it extended its solar panels and began to inflate. The rocket launched at 6:53 pm Moscow Time, and the company released a series of statements over the course of the day reporting that everything’s going well.

Bigelow Aerospace is a space tourism company located in Las Vegas, Nevada. Its long-term goal is to develop a space-based hotel to give wealthy space tourists an orbital experience. Since space stations are so heavy and expensive to carry into orbit, Bigelow Aerospace has been pioneering the concept of inflatable habitats. These are carried into orbit in a compressed state and then inflated to provide a large volume of space for astronauts (and space tourists).

The company took its first step today with the launch of Genesis 1. When compressed, the habitat measures 5 metres (15 feet) in length and 1.9 metres (6.2 feet) in diameter. Once in orbit, it’s designed to inflate to roughly twice its compressed width.

It was carried into space on board an ISC Kosmotras Dnepr rocket – a Cold-War era ICBM – from the Yasny Launch Base.

By Wednesday evening, Bigelow Aerospace confirmed that Genesis-1 had successfully expanded and deployed its solar arrays:

5:20 PST
Bigelow Aerospace has received confirmation from the Genesis I spacecraft that it has successfully expanded.

We have also confirmed that all of the solar arrays have been deployed.

4:15 PST
Bigelow Aerospace mission control has begun to acquire information from the Genesis I spacecraft. The ISC Kosmotras Dnepr rocket has flawlessly delivered the Genesis I into the target orbit of 550km altitude at 64 degrees inclination. The internal battery is reporting a full charge of 26 volts, which leads us to believe that the solar arrays have deployed.

The internal temperature of the spacecraft is reported to be 26 degrees Celsius and we have acquired the spacecraft’s Global Positioning System (GPS) signal that will enable us to track the ship in flight.

We have initiated communication with the ship’s onboard computers and expect to download more information over the next few hours.

The spacecraft is carrying staff photographs and memorabilia, as well as insects that will allow Bigelow to study how well the habitat holds up.

If everything goes well, it’ll stay in orbit for 5 years, giving engineers time to study its performance and to gather data for the next phases of the program. It’ll be exposed to years of solar radiation and cosmic rays, and should get peppered with orbital debris.

Bigelow expects to follow up the launch with Genesis-2; built to the size. It will have improvements based on the data gathered by Genesis-1, and could launch as early as late 2006 or 2007.

After the Genesis-class habitats will come the Galaxy class, and then finally the BA-330, which will contain 330 cubic metres of usable volume (the International Space Station has 425 cubic meters).

Written by Fraser Cain