Inflatable Satellite Launched Into Orbit – Forbes.com

Inflatable Satellite Launched Into Orbit – Forbes.com

This is a fascinating article on a (sort of) new kind of space craft being tested by Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace. The concept isn’t entirely new … NASA has experimented with this in the past, and even considered an inflatable part of the ISS before rejecting it.

The main advantage of this system would be size and weight. An uninflated module can be fit inside a much smaller space than the inflated capsule will take up in orbit, allowing us to fire small payloads for big modules.

There are obvious questions that spring to mind about safety and structure with these vs traditional hard sided craft. But that’s largely human, earth-bound prejudice. With new composite materials, flexibility no longer means a decrease in strength … in fact, composites like Kevlar are stronger than many more rigid materials. And any fear of deflation from a puncture wound is no more serious than the same possibility with hard-shelled craft … its worth remembering that hard-shelled craft still contain ‘inflated’ air at high pressure. Any puncture will be dangerous … but the flexibility of an inflatable craft may actually add to the strength by allowing certain kinds of collision to bounce off. A soft skin can absorb impact and fling something back out much easier than a hard surface. You can’t dent a balloon, but you can dent your car … the same rock that might bounce right off a balloon will crack your windshield or dent/scratch your hood.

I’ll be fascinated to see how this goes over the long haul. One of the problems in commercial use of space has always been the difficulties involved with getting big, bulky space capsules into orbit. Anything that reduces the size of those payloads will bring commercial space one step closer. And its no surprise that Bigelow is interested in orbital hotels and space tourism … this sort of thing is almost perfect for that application.

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