United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Bigelow Aerospace have announced a partnership agreement to launch two of Bigelow’s inflatable B330 space habitats. The modules would be designed and built by Bigelow Aerospace and launched by ULA’s veteran Atlas V rocket and would provide commercial, “democratized” access to Low Earth Orbit research facilities.
The announcement at this year’s Space Symposium comes after years of development on the inflatable module concepts (Genesis I and II) and just three days after Bigelow’s BEAM module launched for a two-year experimental stay on the Space Station.
The agreement unveiled on Monday will see Bigelow deliver two fully functional B330 modules to ULA for notional launches in 2020, as noted by Mr. Bigelow.
Currently, the first of these two modules is slated to be ready for launch by late-2019, with the second module ready sometime in 2020.
While the exact orbital inclinations and orbits of the two B330s is not currently known, Mr. Bigelow noted that both B330s could be free-flying orbital labs while the option exists – pending approval from NASA – to dock one of the B330s to the ISS.
“We are exploring options for the location of the initial B330 including discussions with NASA on the possibility of attaching it to the International Space Station (ISS),” said Robert Bigelow, founder and president of Bigelow Aerospace.
“In that configuration, the B330 will enlarge the station’s volume by 30% and function as a multipurpose testbed in support of NASA’s exploration goals as well as provide significant commercial opportunities.
The announcement noted that the first B330 carried a working name of XBASE, or Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement.
In total, each B330 will have 330 cubic meters (12,000 cu ft) of internal space and will support zero-gravity research for scientific missions and manufacturing processes.
Beyond its industrial and scientific purposes, however, the B330’s have the potential to serve as a destination for space tourism and a craft for missions destined for the Moon and Mars.
These two inflatable B330 module habitats will be launched by ULA’s Atlas V rocket, which will fly in its 552 configuration, with a five meter payload fairing, five solid rocket motors, and a dual-engine Centaur upper stage.
“When looking for a vehicle to launch our large, unique spacecraft, ULA provides a heritage of solid mission success, schedule certainty and a cost effective solution,” said Mr. Bigelow.
Discussing the partnership, ULA President and CEO Tory Bruno stated “[ULA] could not be more pleased than to partner with Bigelow Aerospace and reserve a launch slot on our manifest for this revolutionary mission.
“This innovative and game-changing advance will dramatically increase opportunities for space research in fields like materials, medicine and biology. And it enables destinations in space for countries, corporations and even individuals far beyond what is available today, effectively democratizing space.
“We can’t begin to imagine the future potential of affordable real estate in space.”
However, one immediate importance is that these two B330s would constitute the first-ever commercial space stations in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
According to the announcement, transportation services to the B330s will be provided via NASA’s commercial crew providers, regardless of whether the B330s are free-flying or attached to the Space Station.
Under the agreement, the two B330s would potentially more than double (or quadruple — once both are in LEO) the number of crewed commercial flights each year – though it’s unclear at this time what that number would be doubled for quadrupled from, given that there are currently no commercial crew flights at this time.
Regardless, development of Bigelow’s B330 is well underway, as is the integration of the B330 to the Atlas V, notes the two companies.
Furthermore, Bigelow and ULA note that once the habitats are proven and markets are established, additional B330s could be deployed to locations near the moon or Mars or wherever necessary to meet an anticipated increasing demand for habitable volumes in space.
Images: ULA/Bigelow and L2 (Bigelow) and render from L2 artist Nathan Koga – The full gallery of Nathan’s (SpaceX Dragon to MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*)
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