Washington: NASA and space technology firm Bigelow Aerospace are preparing to launch an expandable habitat module to the International Space Station (ISS) later this year.
The module will result in an additional 565 cubic feet of volume - about the size of a large family camping tent - accessible by astronauts aboard the ISS.
Expandable habitats could be a new way to dramatically increase the amount of volume available to astronauts while also enhancing protection against radiation and physical debris.
In its packed configuration aboard SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft launched on a Falcon 9 rocket, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) will be attached to the space station after undergoing a series of hardware validations.
"We are fortunate to have the space station to demonstrate potential habitation capabilities like BEAM," Jason Crusan, director of Advanced Exploration Systems at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. said in a statement.
"The ISS provides us with a long-duration microgravity platform with constant crew access to evaluate systems and technologies we are considering for future missions farther into deep space," he added.
Once BEAM is attached to the "tranquility node" at the ISS, the space station crew will perform initial system checks before deploying the habitat.
During BEAM's minimum two-year test period, crews will routinely enter to take measurements and monitor its performance to help inform designs for future habitat systems.
In the next decade, NASA plans to extend human spaceflight from low-Earth orbit operations to "proving ground" operations in cis-lunar space orbiting the moon.
In the "proving ground", NASA and its partners will validate vital hardware, including deep space habitats, as well as operations and capabilities necessary to send humans on long-duration missions to Mars or other deep-space destinations in which they must operate independently from Earth.