Bigelow Aerospace and ULA have announced plans to put Bigelow’s B330 expandable habitat module into low lunar orbit by the end of 2022. Bigelow said the habitat will serve as a lunar depot and support infrastructure for other deep space missions. The commercial habitat will launch on ULA’s latest Vulcan rocket.
The announcement expands an earlier partnership to launch one of Bigelow’s B330 habitats into low Earth orbit aboard ULA’s Atlas V rocket in 2020.
The habitat will be placed in low Earth orbit. There, the habitat will be inflated, tested and supplied, in preparation for its final destination. The company said supply and crew missions could be conducted by SpaceX, ULA and possibly other providers.
Meanwhile, ULA will bring up 70 tons of cryogenic propellant, to refuel its upper Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES). The upper stage will act as a space tugboat, rendezvousing with the habitat and ferrying it to its final position in low Lunar orbit.
“Our lunar depot plan is a strong complement to other plans intended to eventually put people on Mars,” Robert Bigelow, president of Bigelow Aerospace, said in a statement. It will provide NASA and America with an exciting and financially practical success opportunity that can be accomplished in the short term. This lunar depot could be deployed easily by 2022 to support the nation’s re-energized plans for returning to the Moon.”
Beyond the press release, lots of details about this mission are still fuzzy. For one, ULA hasn’t yet finished developing its Vulcan rocket, nor the ACES design. And it’s unclear who might pay for the launch. In a pair of tweets, Bigelow seemed to hint that the cost would need to be divvied up between NASA and Bigelow. But perhaps the largest question mark is who the customers of said habitat might be. While the release mentions NASA, nothing seems set in stone.
“This commercial lunar depot would provide anchorage for significant lunar business development in addition to offering NASA and other governments the Moon as a new exciting location to conduct long-term exploration and astronaut training,” Bigelow said.
Bigelow hasn’t yet built a full-scale prototype of its B330 habitat — so named for its 330 cubic meters of volume that can hold six crew members at a time. The company plans to build and launch two B330 habitats into LEO in 2020.
The company currently has a smaller habitat design, called BEAM (Bigelow Expandable Activity Module), attached to the ISS as a pilot demonstration for Bigelow’s inflatable habitat design. NASA announced earlier this month that it’ll keep the BEAM habitat in place for another three years, with options for further extension.