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Bigelow's bigger vision

Seven months after launching its first inflatable space module, Bigelow Aerospace says the orbiting Genesis 1 module has proven itself to be surprisingly resilient and reliable. The North Las Vegas-based company has already hinted that the successors to the Genesis could serve as turnkey space stations, hotels or sports complexes in orbit - or even as pumped-up habitats for the moon and Mars. Now Bigelow is promising to be more specific about how it plans to make its space program profitable.

Here's the text of Monday's pre-announcement from the company's founder, real-estate billionaire Robert Bigelow:

"We will be making a very important and exciting announcement at the National Space Symposium on the week of April 9 in Colorado Springs, and we hope you will plan to be in attendance.

"For the first time, we will be presenting our business plans that we have kept to ourselves until now. This information that we plan to announce on April 10 at the Ball Aerospace Exhibit Center should help support the private space movement."

"We look forward to seeing you there."

Bigelow Aerospace

An external camera on the Genesis 1 module shows
the spacecraft and its solar panels with Hawaii below.

The timing is interesting, coming around the time that Bigelow is hoping to have its Genesis 2 test module launched from a Russian missile base. A variety of rocket companies - ranging from aerospace giant Lockheed Martin to upstart SpaceX - have been working with Bigelow to provide the means to get to privately developed orbital destinations. But it's anyone's guess as to how much the April announcement will add to what's already known about Bigelow's big vision.

One thing's for sure: For Bigelow Aerospace to follow through on that vision, it has to demonstrate the success of its inflatable-module design. And based on the latest report from design team leader Jay Ingham, Genesis 1 has provided a great demonstration already. The prognosis is that Genesis 1 could keep going and going in orbit for at least seven years more.

NBC News space analyst James Oberg passed along Ingham's assessment after referring to it in his own report for IEEE Spectrum Online:

"Since Genesis 1 launched on July 12th, 2006, we have been monitoring all of the on-board systems many times a day.   After almost seven months of flight, we have been very pleased with the both the initial operational success as well as the continued reliability of virtually all of the onboard systems.  We have had minor issues arise from time to time, but most all of them have been able to be resolved with minor software fixes or adjustments.

  • "We have seen no measurable degradation of the power generating capability of all eight solar arrays.
  • "Our original orbit of 346 miles altitude has degraded to 340 miles altitude.  So, at this point we are predicting that the vehicle will maintain its orbit for well over 10 years before re-entering the Earth's atmosphere.
  • "Our battery has not shown any signs of a loss of capacity, but from our use and recharge cycles we are currently calculating a life span of seven-plus years.  This may very well be extended when the rate of use is decreased as we get more vehicles into orbit and our time is split between them.
  •  "Our pressure levels internal to the vehicle have maintained exceptionally well, achieving lower leak rates than those that we have tested on the ground.
  • "Structurally Genesis 1 is in tip-top shape, from pressure data we can determine that the expandable envelope and pressurized structure remains perfectly intact, and from the numerous exterior photographs we download daily, we cannot detect any degradation of the orbital debris shield, or discoloration due to the elevated UV exposure we see in space.
  • "Internal to the vehicle we have had some problems with a computer that controlled several of the cameras, but all of the interior lights and fans and all of the other systems internal to the spacecraft remain in perfect working condition.
  • "This vehicle is passively thermal controlled, so the interior air temperature varies with the quantity of electronics we have operational at any point in time and the amount of sun exposure the vehicle sees.  The internal air temperature has varied from [about] 40 degrees F with very minimal electronics in operation when we are in a maximum eclipse cycle, to [about] 90 degrees F with lots of electronics on when we are in the full sunlight portion of our orbit.
  • "Our avionics and communications to and from the vehicle have operated very well.  We communicate with Genesis 1 several times a day (a frequency which is ever growing as we build new ground stations around the world.)  There was a very severe radiation event (caused by solar activity) on and about the 14th of December of this year. We did suffer some minor communications problems during and after this period which required us to use our backup systems.  This problem was remedied with a reset of our primary system.  This was very encouraging to us that we could survive such an event and recover from it gracefully."

As Oberg points out, you can see Genesis 1 for yourself by looking up the coordinates on the Heavens Above Web site and pointing your binoculars at the specified patch of sky. But for an even better view, you can check out the Bigelow Aerospace Web site for Genesis snapshots and video clips from orbit. If the Bigelow team's projections are correct, there should be plenty more of those to come.