This is the big bang for space station safety.
Sierra Space announced Monday (Jan. 22) that the first prototype of a full-scale space station module was recently deliberately blown up to prepare for future space missions that could take place in 2030. Officials said in an emailed statement to Space.com that the explosion was equivalent to… Use 164 pieces of dynamite.
Sierra Space has sent space equipment into the sky in a series of explosive tests at NASA’s Marshall Space Center in Alabama, but all previous tests have been done on scale models.
The company’s type of inflatable module — which uses soft goods technology from ILC Dover, such as Vectran belts — will fly on the Orbital Reef space station piloted by Sierra Space and Blue Origin. This is one of several concepts funded by NASA to replace the International Space Station (ISS) after the long-duration orbital complex is retired in 2030 or so.
Sierra Space says the dimensions of its units are roughly equivalent to an “average family home,” which, according to 2022 U.S. Census figures, would be 2,299 square feet or 213.5 square meters for single-family homes built that year. However, Sierra Space officials are working cube ft. because microgravity allows all parts of the space within the room to be used. If you want to do the math yourself: The module is three stories high (20.5 feet, or 6.2 meters), and has a diameter of 27 feet, or 8.3 meters, Sierra Space said.
Related: NASA is looking to create special outposts to build on the legacy of the International Space Station
Few inflatable modules have flown into space before, although they are no stranger to the International Space Station; For example, a module made by Bigelow Aerospace has been tested for years there to evaluate how well it can withstand harsh space conditions, such as radiation and microgravity.
Sierra Space’s Large Integrated Flexible Environment (LIFE) Habitat prototype underwent a series of “burst tests” that intentionally continue to pump air into the structure until it fails, eventually bursting like a balloon. In this test, the results exceeded NASA’s safety requirements by 27 percent. In other words, it endured a pressure of 77 pounds per square inch (psi) before exploding, well above the agency’s guideline of 60.8 psi.
“We are leading a reinvention of the space station that will mark a new era of human exploration and discovery,” Tom Weiss, CEO of Sierra Space, said in the statement. As justification, Weiss highlighted the cost value of an inflatable unit, citing its ability to collide with a five-meter (60-foot) missile. This means they can save packing space, and be more than lightweight enough to launch into orbit.
In theory, LIFE could send up three of these modules to overcome the equivalent size of the International Space Station. There are bigger versions coming too. For example, one 50,000-cubic-foot (1,400-cubic-meter) design could exceed the capacity of the International Space Station in a single launch, according to Sierra Space.
Sierra Space aims to continue explosion testing with large-scale, large-scale modules, as well as test how the structure handles micrometeorites. Although the extent to which any concept is ready to replace the International Space Station within six years is still, so to speak, up in the air.
In the past year, NASA officials have repeatedly stressed that they are working to minimize any potential gap that might occur between stations as much as possible, taking into account the technological and financing challenges that arise in the inflationary environment we are experiencing and the 2024 election year. The White House also issued high-level guidance in March 2023 on how NASA will continue to attract research to commercial stations after the International Space Station program ends.
then. In October 2023, NASA opened a new petition requesting “early industry feedback on requirements for new commercial space stations,” particularly in clarifying the stringent requirements of NASA’s human classification criteria for spacecraft.
That same month, NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Committee recommended the agency quickly establish a “comprehensive understanding” of what human safety requirements would be, according to SpaceNews, according to announcements made during the October 26, 2023, public meeting in Washington, D.C.
Committee member David West described the 2030 timeline as “very tight” and said the industry would need a “clear and strong business case” for commercial stations to be able to fill the next research gap in low Earth orbit.
NASA has funded space station design work that is now being done by two commercial teams: one with Blue Origin and Sierra Space as co-leaders, and the other with Voyager Space. (Northrop Grumman announced October 4 that it would shift its initially NASA-funded independent work to Voyager Space.)
Separately, NASA is also funding Axiom Space so that the company can build commercial modules for the International Space Station itself. Late in the life of the orbital complex, Axiom plans to separate the modules as a unified group to create its own free-flying space station.