Wednesday, April 06, 2016

SpaceX Dragon to ferry inflatable module, experiments to space station

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- A first of its kind expandable space habitat module and several tons of science equipment are poised to lift-off a top a SpaceX Falcon rocket on April 8 on a two-day voyage to resupply the International Space Station, NASA confirmed during a news conference on Monday.

NASA officials said the Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) has set next Friday for the launch of its Falcon 9 at 4:43 p.m. EDT, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The commercial company's Dragon supply ship will arrive on orbit nearly ten minutes later, deploy its solar arrays, and perform a series of thruster burns as the spacecraft chases down its port-of-call.

"This is a launch that we've been waiting for quite sometime because it's really important to our overall ISS Research Program," chief scientist for the International Space Station Program Dr. Julie Robinson on Monday. "It has about 2000 kg of research equipment and supplies. The big driver on that amount of mass is that we have about 1400 kg of the BEAM module which will be tested on ISS -- that's the heavy one."

This 23rd flight of a Falcon 9 will mark the company's eighth operational Dragon launch under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services contract. The launch will also mark the first flight of a Dragon supply craft since the June 2015 explosion of a Falcon 9 which destroyed its Dragon off America's Space Coast.

Two days following launch, Dragon will be grappled by the station's 57-foot robotic arm at about 7:00 a.m., and slowly maneuvered over to its docking port on the space facing side of the Tranquility module. Dragon will then dock to the orbital outpost three hours later.

Extensive science experiments scheduled to fly to the orbiting laboratory include 20 live mice which will be used to study muscle wasting in microgravity which will test a special medicine designed to prevent muscle atrophy. Astronauts will also test new gardening techniques to grow 12 Tokyo Bekana Chinese cabbage and six red romaine lettuce.

The April 10 SpaceX docking will become the third cargo ship to arrive in as many weeks. Dragon's compliment of science investigations might be out weighed by the arrival of an inflatable room in space.

A test bed for future expandable modules both in space and on Mars, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) will be attached to the outside of the space station's Tranquility module during an eight-hour operation. Five days after Dragon docks, controllers both at NASA's Johnson Space Center and the Canadian Space Agency near Montreal will operate the robotic arm to pluck the eight-foot wide folded module from the supply craft and move it over for placement next to the dome-shaped Cupola.

BEAM will be filled with air using an air ducts connected to the station in late-May to expanded  the habitat to provide 565 cubic feet of volume. This first ever human-rated expandable structure will begin a two year investigation designed to allow crew members to periodically enter the habitat for a few hours to take measurements and record its performance.

"As far as the environmental differences I would say very minimal the first time the astronauts go in BEAM they might see a very little one to two drops of condenstaion on the aft side of the module, but that will disappear in no time once we start of air venalation so  as far as the environment is it will be the same as station it might be a little bit cooler because it does not have shell heaters."

The windowless BEAM was constructed with two metal bulkheads on either end of its aluminum structure. Several layers of a soft fabric with spaces between each layer will protect its internal restraint and bladder system. BEAM was built to withstand radiation, micrometeorites, and many more hazards in the vacuum of space.

"I know theses modules will open doors to the future because they save on launch volume," said Lisa Kauke, BEAM deputy program manager at Bigelow Aerospace, explained on Monday. "To give you an example of how much launch volume we save the internal volume of BEAM increases by over 10 times between the packed and expanded configurations."

This inflatable will allow NASA to understand how they perform in the harsh environment of space. The space agency is working in partnership with Bigelow Aerospace to create module homes for astronauts who will spend nearly a year or longer on the surface of Mars during 2030's.

"BEAM is a pathfinder to building manned space habitats," said Lisa Kauke, BEAM deputy program manager at Bigelow Aerospace, explained on Monday. "The astronauts will periodically interact with the the module about four times a year, collect the data, and be the first of many future astronauts to interact with expandables."

Two years following launch, BEAM will be detached and released into space by the station's robotic arm. Twenty days later, orbital decay will drag the empty module into Earth's atmosphere and a fiery reentry.

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