WASHINGTON — Bigelow Aerospace completed an initial closed-loop test in March of a prototype environmental control and life support (ECLS) system designed to support extended crew stays inside the inflatable habitats the company is building to provide research facilities and hotel accommodations in space.
The March 31 demonstration was conducted inside the company’s North Las Vegas headquarters in a newly constructed test chamber, according to Eric Haakonstad, Bigelow Aerospace chief engineer. He said the test involved locking three Bigelow engineers inside the 180-cubic-meter structure for about eight hours, during which they performed a variety of tasks that demonstrated the ECLS system’s ability to control temperature, humidity, pressure, oxygen content and the removal of carbon dioxide and trace-gas contaminants from the environment.
“Eight hours is a convenient steppingstone for us,” Haakonstad said in an April 4 interview. “It’s enough time to get to steady-state conditions but not necessarily long enough where we have to worry about — we’ll call it overnight hygiene and sleeping arrangements.”
Haakonstad said the test chamber is designed to replicate the interior volume and shape of the three-person Sundancer inflatable module the company is building, though he said the facility is scalable to the larger BA-330 module. The BA-330 is designed to offer 330 cubic meters of internal volume for a crew of six.
Haakonstad said the initial checkout of the test facility is the first of many demos planned over the next year to simulate and test ECLS systems in support of long-duration crew stays in orbit. He said within the next couple of months Bigelow Aerospace plans to conduct a 30-hour demonstration of the ECLS system followed by another lasting up to a week.
He said both the ECLS system and its test chamber were built in-house, giving the company more control over system development.
“This is such a highly tuned integrated system that you can really put yourself at some dangerous risk scenarios of piecemealing and outsourcing the whole system together,” Haakonstad said. “We have to be the system integration expert. So to be able to monitor that in-house, make fast, rapid manipulations to the architecture and design to counter issues or meet efficiency gain, we’re better to control that in house.”
In addition to completing the demonstration facility, Bigelow Aerospace is wrapping up work on an analytical chemistry laboratory that will expand real-time monitoring and analysis of gas or liquid in the test chamber’s atmosphere.
“We take samples of the internal air and run them through the solution and it’ll tell you pretty much exactly what individual components are present in that gas or liquid,” said Gary Johnson, ECLS manager at Bigelow Aerospace.
Haakonstad said Bigelow’s ECLS design incorporates lessons learned from systems used aboard platforms including the international space station, the Mir space station, the space shuttle and, to a lesser extent, the Orion crew capsule currently under development by NASA.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel here,” Haakonstad said. “All we’re trying to do is take the technology development that our tax dollars through NASA have developed and package them into a more producible form factor. We’re not trying to be cutting edge in terms of technology; we are trying to be cutting edge in terms of affordability and availability and ruggedness.”
However, unlike ECLS systems designed for short-term trips between Earth and the space station, Bigelow’s ECLS system is designed to support long-duration missions on orbit.
“We deal much more with the regeneration capability, recycling loops of water and producing enough oxygen from water — that’s one of the major differences,” he said, adding that the ECLS system uses an electrolysis process to generate oxygen. “On a practical level we extract as much water from the environment and from any waste treatment process that we can think of that minimizes the amount of resupply from terrestrial supplies of water.”
Since successfully launching two prototype inflatable modules to orbit in 2006 and 2007, Bigelow Aerospace has been developing Sundancer and the BA-330 for launch as early as 2014. Company founder and real estate tycoon Robert Bigelow has invested more than $215 million of his money into the company to date.