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NASA reveals details on experimental space habitat during Reddit AMA

Experts behind the first human-rated expandable space habitat answer questions on Reddit to promote the start of its 2-year test mission.

BEAM, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, in its expanded configuration in this computer rendering.

Bigelow Aerospace

How much do you know about NASA's experimental Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM)? Not much? Don't worry, you're not alone.

BEAM, the first human-rated expandable space habitat, could one day be used for deep space applications like Martian habitats. To promote its upcoming 2-year test period, experts from NASA and Bigelow Aerospace answered questions from space enthusiasts during a Reddit Ask Me Anything, or AMA, session on Tuesday.

BEAM will be expanded to its full size on Thursday and begin its tech demonstration attached to the International Space Station, according to NASA. The module is expected to expand from its compressed size of 8 feet in diameter by 7 feet in length to roughly 10 feet in diameter by 13 feet in length.

"We're really excited about this new technology that may help inform the design of deep space habitats for future missions, even those to deep space," NASA posted on Reddit. "Expandable habitats are designed to take up less room on a rocket, but provide greater volume for living and working in space once expanded."

Below are some highlights from the AMA session. NASA fans that want more can tune into the live expansion at 5:30 am ET on Thursday on NASA TV and follow updates on the Space Station Twitter account.

NASA AMA: We are expanding the first human-rated expandable structure in space....AUA! from science

On whether expandable habitats could be used as surface habitats:

"Yes, definitely!" NASA BEAM Deputy Manager Steve Munday answered. "Just as in the movie, 'The Martian'...only without the catastrophic explosion that nearly killed Matt Damon. Expandable habitats have the advantage of being launched small, taking up less volume on launch vehicles and in transit, and then become big later, expanding to full volume in space or even after being pre-deployed to the surface of Mars."

On handling radiation in an expandable structure:

"Radiation protection is indeed critical for astronauts on the Space Station and eventually traveling to Mars," Munday answered. "Data from the sensors inside BEAM will be download[ed] by engineers on the ground throughout the 2-year mission on the Space Station. This data will be invaluable for the viability and design of future expandable habitats. Radiation can behave differently when passing through multiple fabric layers vs. metallic shells. It remains to be seen how BEAM's radiation protection will compare to standard metallic modules, but that is a big part of the reason for doing this tech demo, paving the way for the use of expandable structures in future exploration missions."

On whether astronauts inside BEAM will need to wear space suits:

"BEAM has undergone rigorous testing to ensure it meets the current NASA safety standards," Bigelow Aerospace Engineer Brandon Bechtol answered. "Crew will be able to enter the module as a standard 'shirt-sleeve' environment without the need for a space suit or tether."

On what is this particular module going to be used for:

"BEAM serves as a technology demonstration along with having the ability to provide useful data about radiation, thermal, and micrometeoroid impacts," Bechtol answered. "We are hoping to continue our great relationship with NASA and provide expandable habitats for an array of uses ranging from scientific experimentation for long-term life support systems, deep space transportation habitats, or even surface modules for Lunar or Martian applications."

On the effective serviceable lifespan for the inflatable modules:

"BEAM is scheduled for a 2-year mission on the Space Station," Munday replied. "However, it could easily last for 5 or more years. Existing Space Station metallic modules are designed for the full lifetime of the Space Station through 2024."

On how NASA will safely decommission the BEAM module once it has reached its end-of-life:

"The end of mission plan is to jettison BEAM from below the Space Station using the robotic arm," Munday answered. "BEAM will naturally drift away from the Space Station and re-enter the earth's atmosphere about a year later. NASA engineers have analyzed this reentry and determined it will pose an extremely low risk to people on the ground. Remember that most of BEAM is made of fabric materials that will burn up quickly during reentry. The metallic parts of BEAM (for example, the two bulkheads on either end) are made of aluminum which should also burn up during entry."

"Even in a worst case scenario in which most or all of these bulkheads make it all the way to the ground, there is an extremely low risk of falling near anyone according to conservative computer model analysis," Munday added. "The rest of the Space Station also will reenter the earth's atmosphere after the end of its usable lifetime, but it will be a controlled, guided entry, meaning it will be targeted to enter above an ocean, far from populated areas. BEAM has no propulsion or guidance capability, but still poses an extremely low risk to us on the ground."