In the 2015 movie The Martian, NASA astronaut Mark Watney is stranded on Mars and must spend months living in “the Hab,” which is essentially a large temperature- and atmosphere-controlled bubble made from a specialized canvas-like material. While this is—quite literally—something straight out of a sci-fi novel (Andy Weir’s eponymous 2011 novel), scientists at NASA have partnered up with Bigelow Aerospace to develop something similar for their first trip to the red planet.

On April 8, 2016, Bigelow Aerospace and NASA sent the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) to the International Space Station (ISS). BEAM is a cylindrical compartment that is stored as a compressed disk and can be expanded to a full-sized space. BEAM was developed to act as a potential work/living space for astronauts on long deep-space voyages. But first, the BEAM technology must be put to the test! BEAM will stay on the ISS, in its expanded form, for two years.

During this trial, the astronauts living aboard the ISS will check BEAM periodically to collect data and evaluate its structural design. Following its stay on the ISS, BEAM will be detached from the station—but don’t worry! In the atmosphere, BEAM will break apart and burn up, so no harmful particles will make it to Earth’s surface. This is actually an oft-used practice for releasing spacecraft in space, and it certainly keeps space garbage from building up.

The BEAM is an attractive alternative to building larger space stations because of its potential for efficiency. Materials intended for space must be sent (via rocket power) through our atmosphere and away from the planet’s gravitational pull. Because of this, the lighter the materials are, the better! The canvas-like material that forms BEAM is lightweight, which makes it easier to send into outer space. Additionally, BEAM is compactible, which saves room on the rockets, which leaves more room for other materials, which saves money.

Some interesting specs: BEAM weighs about 3,000 pounds. Once in space, it can be expanded to its full size, which is about 565 cubic feet. The materials used for BEAM’s walls form layers that deflect various space debris, shield radiation, regulate temperature and protect against leaks. Interestingly, BEAM has no windows. Who knows . . . maybe one day?

To get an idea of how BEAM works with the ISS, check out this animation of its installation—it’s out of this world!

Did You Know?

In October of 2016, President Obama gave a speech committing NASA and private space-tech companies to a manned mission to Mars by the 2030s. BEAM is one of the many steps in getting NASA ready for this awesome feat!

Image credit: NASA/Paolo Nespoli