Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Bigelow Expanded Activity Module & Breakthrough Starshot

          By Brian Orlotti

BEAM. Imfographic c/o
Over the past few weeks, two new events have shown the private space industry's achieving a critical mass of both financial support and cohesion.

First off, on April 8th, a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, launched into orbit on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, delivered the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) to the International Space Station (ISS).

BEAM is a technology demonstrator designed to prove the viability of inflatable space habitats and will spend two years attached to the ISS.

As announced in the April 11th, 2016 Verge article, "ULA is teaming up with Bigelow Aerospace to launch commercial space habitats,"

BEAM will pave the way for the debut of Bigelow Aerospace's flagship product, the B330, in 2019.

Bigelow Aerospace CEO Robert Bigelow envisions the B330 habitat essentially being operated as a timeshare, with both NASA and private citizens as paying customers. Bigelow will rely on commercial providers SpaceX and Boeing to transport crew to and from the B330.

As outlined in the April 2nd, 2013 post, "A Thin Red Line to Protect Mars Explorers," Chiliwack BC., based Thin Red Line Aerospace designs and builds the pressure-restraining hulls used for the Bigelow habitats which are made of impact-resistant, Kevlar-like materials and other fabrics.

Thin Red Line Aerospace has previously designed and built the pressure-restraining hulls for the Bigelow Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 technology demonstrators, which launched in 2006 and 2007.

The lightweight habitats could save millions of dollars in launch costs compared with metal modules.

But Bigelow isn't the only space focused billionaire with a new initiative this month. 

Infographic c/o
On April 12th, venture capitalist Yuri Milner and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking unveiled Breakthrough Starshot, a  $100Mln USD ($128Mln CDN) initiative to develop a fleet of light sail-equipped nano-spacecraft capable of travelling to Alpha Centauri in 20 years at 20% of light-speed, taking pictures and video and then relaying them back to Earth. 

In an interesting reversal of conventional wisdom, Milner categorized the project as something which governments would not normally consider because of its speculative nature and the long lead times.

As outlined in the April 12th, 2016 CBC News post, "Yuri Milner, Stephen Hawking's Breakthrough Starshot targets Alpha Centauri," it could take years to develop the project, and there is no guarantee it will work.

Breakthrough Starshot is part of a larger program called Breakthrough Initiatives, funded by Milner to pursue different avenues for contacting extraterrestrial life.

As outlined on the project website, the initiatives, "are a program of scientific and technological exploration, probing the big questions of life in the Universe: Are we alone? Are there habitable worlds in our galactic neighborhood? Can we make the great leap to the stars? And can we think and act together – as one world in the cosmos?"

The Breakthrough Initiatives board includes Milner, Hawking and Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

The Breakthrough Initiatives are another watershed example of a marquee investor applying their resources into a long-term space project with no immediate return.

The BEAM delivery to the ISS marks the proof-of-concept of a technology that will enable extensive in-orbit and off-world development.

The Bigelow/ULA partnership signifies the emergence of a new pragmatism within the space industry; the coming together of Old Guard and New. Space aficionados everywhere can take heart in seeing this long-static industry finally embracing its future.

"And that day dawned when Arrakis lay at the hub of the universe with the wheel poised to spin.," Frank Herbert - Dune.

Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a network operations centre analyst at Shomi, a Canadian provider of on-demand internet streaming media and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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