NASA’s new inflatable space home

It looks like a giant pillow, but is meant to be a home away from home for astronauts in space.

It's the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM for short. Weighing more than 3,000 pounds, and measuring roughly 12-feet long and 10-feet wide when fully expanded, the module is designed to give astronauts a great deal more space to move around in during long missions at the International Space Station (ISS).

The units can be used as working or living quarters, and even be outfitted with lab equipment.

The habitat will be loaded in its "deflated" form into a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, and taken to the International Space Station on the next SpaceX resupply mission April 8.

Once at the station, it will be unpacked and expanded to its full size — about four times that of its volume when packed.

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is displayed in Las Vegas in this Jan. 16, 2013, picture provided by NASA.
Bill Ingalls | Reuters
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is displayed in Las Vegas in this Jan. 16, 2013, picture provided by NASA.

When expanded, it's roughly 16 cubic meters, "about the size of a small bedroom," NASA's Rajib Dasgupta said during a call with reporters Monday.

Astronauts will not live inside the BEAM yet; instead, the unit will undergo a two-year testing period to determine how well suited it is for the harsh space environment. Sensors will measure air pressure, radiation levels, temperature and other information.

The video above is an animated simulation showing how the BEAM will be attached to the ISS, and how it might look inside once fully expanded.

Expandable structures such as the BEAM offer some new possibilities for space travel. They weigh less than metal structures of the same size, and take up less space during transport. This could reduce the need for frequent resupply missions, and allow structures to be carried farther into space.

The BEAM is one of the products developed for NASA by Bigelow Aerospace, a company founded by Robert Bigelow, who was previously known for starting the chain of extended-stay hotels called Budget Suites of America.

The company has specialized in developing "expandables," or "inflatables," for deep space travel. NASA considers these structures important tools for deep space missions, and its continuing goal to send humans to Mars.

SpaceX's Dragon aircraft will carry more than 3,800 pounds of supplies and payloads, including research materials, vegetables for the crew to eat, and 20 live mice, which will be used to study treatments meant to prevent muscle and bone loss.

After the two-year testing period, the BEAM will detach from the ISS and burn up upon reentering Earth's atmosphere.