Bigelow's second inflatable space module launched
BY STEPHEN CLARK
Posted: June 28, 2007;
Updated at 8:45 p.m. with spacecraft status details
The next step in one man's vision to populate Earth orbit with a network of private space stations was realized Thursday, when the entrepreneur's company launched its second inflatable module from Russia on a test flight.
Like its predecessor one year ago, Genesis 2 rode to space atop a Dnepr rocket, a converted ballistic missile from Russia's military arsenal. The Dnepr shot out of an underground silo at the Yasny launch base in southern Russia at 1502 GMT (11:02 a.m. EDT).
The three-stage rocket hurled into space and released Genesis 2 into a near-circular orbit about 350 miles high with an inclination of 64.5 degrees.
Compressed air from several on-board gas tanks began inflating the module shortly after arriving in space. Genesis 2 measures more than 14 feet long and eight feet in diameter when fully expanded, according to Bigelow Aerospace.
Genesis 2 also deployed its solar panels to begin charging the spacecraft's battery, ground controllers confirmed Thursday evening.
Engineers at Bigelow Aerospace's mission control near Las Vegas received the first signals from Genesis 2 at 5:20 p.m. EDT. The communications pass occurred as the module flew above a ground station near Washington, D.C.
Genesis 2 also sent back small images from a camera mounted outside the module. The sequence showed the deployment of the spacecraft's solar panels.
Robert Bigelow, owner of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, founded Bigelow Aerospace in 1999 to pursue the commercial space market. Since then, the company has developed and launched two prototype inflatable modules and begun work on a series of habitable spacecraft that could arrive in space by 2010.
Bigelow Aerospace achieved its latest milestone with Thursday's launch of Genesis 2, a one-third scale model of the spacecraft Bigelow eventually plans to send into orbit.
Genesis 2 is following the trail blazed by Genesis 1, which gave Bigelow Aerospace a firm presence in space last July. The two modules are identical on the exterior, but Genesis 2 carries an upgraded suite of internal avionics, a revamped inflation system, more cameras, and the first objects contributed by paying customers.
"With Genesis 1, it was our first rodeo. We didn't know exactly what to expect," said program manager Eric Haakonstad. "This time, we were able to perform rehearsals and were more prepared for the launch phase."
The Genesis 2 launch was postponed from late 2006 after the Dnepr suffered a failure during a flight last summer. The Dnepr is sold commercially by Kosmotras, an international venture headed by Russia and Ukraine.
Kosmotras ordered the delays to conduct additional checks and upgrades on the Dnepr rocket tagged to launch Genesis 2, Bigelow said in a statement last month.
The 3,000-pound module features more than 400 cubic feet of usable interior volume, similar to the size of a typical sports utility vehicle.
Twenty-two cameras mounted both inside and outside Genesis 2 will beam back imagery to Bigelow ground stations in Las Vegas, Virginia, Alaska and Hawaii. Just 13 cameras were launched aboard Genesis 1.
The interior cameras will take pictures of floating photos and trinkets sent in by customers for a fee of less than $300 per object. Those images will be disseminated to Bigelow's customers.
New reaction wheel assemblies and a precise measurement system will also be tested during the Genesis 2 mission. These systems will be needed to control larger modules planned for the future.
Genesis 2 also carries Biobox, a more capable animal habitat housing colonies of ants, cockroaches and scorpions. Another payload on Genesis 2 is a space-age bingo game complete with a mechanism to randomly select numbered balls, and engineers designing the bingo device will use the experience to build more complex payloads for future modules, officials said.
Bigelow expects both modules to continue operating well into the next decade, but the company is already working to develop the next generation of inflatable modules as a stepping stone to the company's ultimate goal – creating a fleet of orbiting private space complexes for clients to visit.
Called Galaxy, the next module will serve as a test bed for an array of new systems, including advanced avionics, high-speed communications equipment, and larger solar panels. Galaxy will also carry elements of Bigelow's life support system, and the spacecraft will feature structural upgrades to make the module more robust.
The craft will have 45 percent more internal volume than the Genesis modules.
The Galaxy module should be ready for launch by late 2008, according to Bigelow's projections.
In 2010, Bigelow plans to roll out the Sundancer, the company's first spacecraft capable of supporting a human crew. A year later, plans call for a node and service module to be launched to Sundancer. The combination will be joined by the first BA 330 module in 2012.
Bigelow's future plans were revealed in an April speech at the 23rd National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Bigelow expects his customers will come from a wide range of backgrounds, including government and commercial scientists.