The SpaceX cargo resupply launch for the International Space Station set for April 8 will have something more than the usual scientific experiments, food and replacement parts for the orbiter.
The spacecraft will be carrying the BEAM space habitat made by Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace that will be attached to the outside of the space station for a two-year test.
NASA scientists expect that inflatable habitats, also known as expandables, will eventually house astronauts when they land on Mars.
Ensuring the habitats are rugged enough to keep astronauts safe in space is the first step.
"The journey to Mars is complex and filled with challenges that NASA and its partners are continuously working to solve," NASA wrote on its website. "Before sending the first astronauts to the Red Planet, several rockets filled with cargo and supplies will be deployed to await the crews' arrival. Expandable modules, which are lower-mass and lower-volume systems than metal habitats, can increase the efficiency of cargo shipments, possibly reducing the number of launches needed and overall mission costs."
According to NASA, the habitat, which is the first inflatable structure for humans to be launched into space, will be attached to the Tranquility Node on the space station, using the station's robotic Canadarm2. Within the next four months, the habitat is expected to be filled with air to expand it for a two-year test period. During that period, astronauts living in the space station will enter the habitat three or four times a year for a few hours to conduct a series of tests of its performance.
Astronauts will evaluate how well the habitat performs in the thermal environment of space, as well as how it reacts to radiation, and to micrometeoroids and other debris.
After the test period, the habitat will be jettisoned from the space station and is expected to burn up on its descent through Earth's atmosphere, NASA said.
When expanded, the habitat will provide 565 cubic feet of space, about the size of an eight-person tent. However, when it is packed up for transport, it measures only 8 feet in diameter.
Fitted with sensors and radiation monitors, the habitat has two metal bulkheads, an aluminum structure, and multiple layers of soft fabric with spacing between layers. It does not have windows.
The launch onboard the SpaceX cargo spaceship also will offer a test of the habitat's packing and folding techniques.
The SpaceX Dragon resupply capsule is set for launch on a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 4:43 p.m. ET April 8.