NASA to inflate habitat at space station

Story highlights

  • An expandable habitat will be filled with air on the International Space Station
  • Astronauts will monitor structure for two years

(CNN)The International Space Station is about to get a little bigger.

Astronauts are preparing to deploy the much anticipated Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) on Thursday, which will kick off a two-year mission in orbit.
    Crew members were installing computer cables, checking connections and hardware before the morning deployment, according to NASA. The event will be televised live on NASA TV. The fun begins at 5:30 a.m. ET.
    The prototype successfully hooked onto ISS in April, making it the first-ever test module to attach to the craft.
    BEAM attached to the International Space Station early on April 16, 2016.
    The day of deployment, astronauts will slowly start to fill the structure, which is made mostly of a fabric-like material, with breathable air. The habitat should stretch to the size of a small bedroom once it is fully inflated.
    Astronauts will have to wait about a week before entering the habitat.
    NASA plans to have one crew member enter the expandable space three to four times a year to run a series of tests, ranging from analyzing pressure to monitoring how the habitat is preforming in microgravity.
    These tests are crucial because it will allow investigators to gauge how well the habitat does, particularly with space debris, solar radiation and temperature fluctuation, just some of the elements that can affect astronauts, especially for potential deep space travel. Eventually, the habitat could be used as living quarters.
    The deployment of BEAM has been highly anticipated by NASA scientists and the engineers at Bigelow Aerospace, the company which built the prototype. If successful, BEAM may pave the way for how the next space station is built, especially as "expandables" become the new norm in space habitat engineering.
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    The American space agency has been clear that the next space station in lower Earth's orbit will most likely be a commercial station, where NASA is just one several customers, according to Jason Crusan, director of NASA's Advanced Exploration Systems.
    Unlike traditional space structures that have been made of metal, BEAM is crafted with a Kevlar-like weave that runs throughout the habitat. BEAM's technology is appealing for future space endeavors because it's lightweight and compact material makes it easier and potentially cheaper for rockets to carry the equipment into space.
    Plus, the technology offers a lot of room for astronauts, something NASA is interested in as it prepares for its journey to Mars in the 2030s.
    Billionaire businessman Robert Bigelow, founder of Bigelow Aerospace, hopes to launch an expandable space station into orbit by 2020. "We have the architecture to launch on the moon, but our first step it to launch into lower orbit," he told CNN.