May 29, 2017 | By Benedict

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), a modular habitat attached to the International Space Station, has passed a first round of tests concerning its resistance to space debris. 3D printed radiation shields will now be added to the module for extra protection against cosmic rays.

A 3D printed radiation shield (the hemispherical white shape) protects a sensor inside the BEAM

On May 28, 2016, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module inflated to its full size after sitting in an unexpanded state on the ISS for just over a month. A year on, and the unusual space station module remains in good condition, having just passed an important first year of testing.

The BEAM was launched and attached to station through a partnership between NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems Division (AES) and Bigelow Aerospace, which is based in North Las Vegas, Nevada. During a two-year stint on the ISS, the BEAM will be put through its paces to see if it is suitable for protecting humans from the harsh conditions of space.

The first year of the expandable module’s life on the ISS has been mostly about resisting space debris. Sensors in the module, which are monitored by staff at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, indicate that the blow-up structure has taken a few hits. Fortunately, the kevlar-like weave of the module has done its bit, preventing any penetration from outside forces.

All in all, it looks like the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module is resistant to most kinds of typical space debris. And although NASA will continue to monitor the module’s performance in this regard, the space organization is now concerned with another matter: radiation.

The BEAM being expanded in 2016

Bigelow says its expandable module will actually perform better than the rest of the ISS at shielding from radiation. The metallic shell of the station scatters radiation from solar flares, whereas the non-metallic skin of the module should will keep this scattering effect to a minimum.

Sensors known as Radiation Environment Monitors (REM) installed in the Bigelow module have allowed NASA scientists to measure radiation levels inside the balloon-like structure, and results indicate that the level of cosmic rays is similar to that inside the rest of the station. That’s fine, but ideally the module needs to perform better, since it is designed to be used in more dangerous conditions than those it currently finds itself in.

“The space station and the BEAM enjoy a significant amount of protection from Earth’s magnetosphere,” a NASA spokesperson said. “Future deep space missions will be far more exposed to energized radiation particles speeding through the solar system, so NASA is actively working on ways to mitigate the effects of radiation events.”

But radiation levels in the BEAM could soon be decreased, thanks to a set of 3D printed radiation shields printed on the International Space Station’s Made In Space Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) 3D printer.

At the end of April, ISS crew members installed a .04 inch (1.1 mm) thick shield onto one of the two REM sensors in BEAM after printing it on the station’s AMF 3D printer. Over the next few months, this 3D printed shield will be replaced by two successively thicker 3D printed shields, with thicknesses of roughly 0.13 inches (3.3mm) and 0.4 inches (10mm), respectively.

A look inside the expanded BEAM

The radiation shields will help NASA better understand the energy spectra of the trapped radiation particles on the ISS, particularly those coming from the South Atlantic Anomaly, the area where the Earth's inner Van Allen radiation belt comes closest to the Earth's surface.

Last year, NASA carried out a research project titled “3D Printed Composite-Z and Graded-Z Radiation Shields (CoGZ-Rad), Phase I.” In the project, multi-material 3D printing techniques were used to make a cost-effective and lightweight radiation shielding made up of polymers and polymer composites.

The project was involved “using high-hydrogen-content materials for passive radiation shielding to protect electronics from solar particle events and other radiation exposures.” Researchers on the project concluded that 3D printed radiation shields were “affordable and optimal at all scales ranging from Cubesats to interplanetary manned missions.”

While the research project does not appear to have carried out specifically for the BEAM, the project’s findings could nonetheless prove useful in Bigelow’s development of the ISS module.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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