When the SpaceX Dragon launches to the International Space Station on Friday, it will be carrying with it an inflatable habitat that could one day be used by astronauts traveling to Mars or on another deep space mission.
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, called BEAM for short, is a fabric room NASA envisions astronauts will be able to set up and pack up with ease. Sensors inside BEAM monitor temperature and radiation changes, along with how it fares against potential orbital debris.
"When we’re traveling to Mars or beyond, astronauts need habitats that are both durable and easy to transport and to set up. That’s where expandable technology comes in," NASA said in a blog post. The idea was first conceptualized by NASA in the 1990s and was built by Bigalow Aerospace.
Astronauts will only enter BEAM to collect data during its first test in the micro-gravity environment. NASA plans to keep the airlock between BEAM and the space station closed. If punctured, BEAM is designed to slowly compress, ensuring there it doesn't pose any danger to the space station.
Dragon is scheduled to launch Friday at 4:43 p.m. ET on Friday from Cape Canaveral in Florida, with an arrival slated for Sunday, April 10.
Along with BEAM, the spacecraft will be packed with 7,000 pounds of cargo, including food, supplies and science experiments.
Dragon will also bring important cargo back to Earth in May, carrying some of the biological samples collected during astronaut Scott Kelly's historic one-year mission in space.