Air Force News Service

KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. (AFPN) — The latest Air Force Research Laboratory brainchild to
reduce the bulk and weight of future space systems looks, well, kind of like a huge contact lens for a
myopic Jolly Green Giant or a transparent flying saucer.

“But, what you’re really seeing here at AFRL’s Space Vehicles Directorate is a potential solution to
an important, ongoing problem in the space business: How to shrink the weight of spacecraft and,
as a result, lower expensive launch costs,” said Bob Acree, AFRL project manager for inflatable
space structures.

“We, and our commercial partners at SRS Technologies in Huntsville, Alabama, are also examining
the inherent possibilities of inflatable technology to reduce the volume of stowed payload in launch
vehicles,” Acree explained. “By using thin-film, NASA-developed plastics like this membrane, we can
shrink payload weight and the pre-launch mass of some fairly large structures — antennas, radar
dishes, sensors, telescope optics — down to a few hundred pounds rather than the thousands of
pounds comparative metal structures weigh today. Then, once the system is in orbit and ready for
deployment, an inert gas will re-inflate the structure, like a life raft.”

When considering spacecraft design, weight and volume have always been critical limitations, not
only for the Air Force, but also for the space industry at large. The standard cost estimate
commonly used for every pound placed into orbit is $10,000. Consequently, the lighter and smaller
the payload, the cheaper class of launch vehicle can be used.

Moreover, by developing technologies that both compress a payload’s volume — either by folding or
collapsing — for launch, and then unfolds, or in this case inflates, the payload back to its operational
size and configuration once in orbit, AFRL enables placement of much larger — not heavier —
structures in orbit.

“And in space, size dominates, especially if you want to find relatively small things on earth and see
them clearly by using space-based radar, sensors, or a telescope,” said Acree.

“If you are designing structures for, say, high-altitude surveillance missions, you want to put up the
largest system you can. And the bigger the structure, the bigger, more detailed picture you get of
objects on and above the ground. But we must work within reasonable cost limitations,” explained

“Here at the lab, our thin-film, inflatable technology has potential to be about 10-times cheaper and
10-times lighter than current structures, and also permit payloads that are at least 10-times
smaller in volume than today’s mechanically deployed structures,” said Acree. “Right now, we think
inflatable membranes hold genuine, efficient possibilities for such spacecraft as solar orbit transfer
vehicle concentrators and radio frequency antennas.”

Acree said AFRL is planning a demonstration flight for AFRL’s thin-film inflatables within the next six
years. (Courtesy of AFRL Public Affairs)

[Air Force News Photo:]

Air Force Research Laboratory Space Vehicles Directorate engineers prepare inflatable membrane
for testing in the directorate’s Structures and Controls Laboratory. Looking a lot like a giant
contact lens, this experimental lightweight device may pave the way for future, inexpensive
weight-saving technologies that enable large space structures. (Air Force photo by Art Goodman)