29 June 2007

Genesis II Launches Successfully

A Russian rocket boosted Bigelow Aerospace's Genesis II inflatable space habitat into orbit yesterday.
"It was beautiful," Bigelow Aerospace corporate counsel Mike Gold, who attended the launch, told SPACE.com immediately after the Dnepr blastoff. "Genesis 1 is about to have company."

Genesis 2 is a near-twin of Bigelow Aerospace's Genesis 1 module, which launched in July 2006 and remains operational today, but carries a series of enhancements and additional cargo, the Las Vegas, Nevada-based spaceflight firm has said. Both spacecraft are prototypes for future commercial orbital complexes that Bigelow Aerospace, and its founder and president Robert Bigelow, hope to offer for use by private firms and national space agencies.

....The Genesis 2 module sports a similar look as its Genesis 1 predecessor, but carries a suite of new sensors and avionics to monitor and control the spacecraft in orbit. The sensors will watch over internal pressure, temperature, vehicle attitude control and radiation levels, Bigelow Aerospace officials said.

Once in space, the 15-foot (4.4-meter) module is designed to deploy eight solar arrays and expand from its launch width of 6.2 feet (1.9 meters) to a flight diameter of eight feet (2.54 meters). Genesis 2 carries 22 cameras - more than the 13 imagers aboard Genesis 1 - to record scenes within the spacecraft's 406-cubic foot (11.5-cubic meter) volume.

Unlike its predecessor, Genesis 2 also sports a multi-tank system to inflate the module with compressed air. That improvement, the firm has said, adds vital redundancy in the inflation process and allows better control of the craft's gas supplies.

If all goes well, Genesis 2 is expected to have a long orbital life akin to that of Genesis 1, which continues to operate nearly a full year after its July 12, 2006 launch. Bigelow Aerospace officials said the older module may even continue to function through the next eight to 13 years.

Inflatable space habitats may play an ever larger role in space exploration, given the potential launch weight and space savings involved. In a vacuum, and inflatable structure can provide a great deal of strength. Radiation and micro-meteorite protection can be built into the lining of the structure. On a planetary surface, the inflatables can be partially surrounded with soil, providing further protection.

Over time, the sophistication of these habitats for both orbital and planetary structures should grow considerably.

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