As the aging International Space Station (ISS) faces destruction in about seven years from now, attention has turned to new designs to replace the orbital outpost.
One company exploring various solutions is Sierra Space, which focuses on space technology. The Colorado-based team has developed an inflatable LIFE (Large Integrated Flexible Environment) habitat for commercial space stations and recently worked with NASA to conduct a stress test on a full-scale LIFE module that ended in a dramatic – but not unexpected – explosion.
The plan is to test how much pressure the habitat’s shell can handle – a critical process if it has to face the harsh environment of space. And the good news is that it has gone beyond what was needed.
The video below provides some insight into LIFE’s design and shows the test setup and the explosion itself, which occurs at the 5:55 mark.
Sierra Space also shared some spectacular slow motion footage as the LIFE habitat breaks apart.
A full-scale UBP test unit reached 77 psi before exploding, far exceeding (+27%) #NASAthe recommended level is 60.8 psi (maximum operating pressure 15.2 psi multiplied by a safety factor of four).
— Sierra Space (@SierraSpaceCo) January 22, 2024
The pressurized shell of this habitat is made of “soft material” or woven fabric that can expand and function like a rigid structure once inflated, Sierra Space explains on its website.
The full-scale unit used in the test reached 77 psi (pounds per square inch) before exploding, far exceeding NASA’s recommended level of 60.8 psi.
The interesting thing about LIFE is its inflatable design which means it takes up very little space to launch into space as it only needs to be inflated once in orbit.
Notably, LIFE is capable of reaching a third of the volume of the ISS in a single launch. The space station took more than 40 flights to assemble, so far fewer missions would be required if the space station were built using multiple inflatable habitats. This means a drastic reduction in construction costs.
“We are driving the rediscovery of the space station that will shape a new era of human exploration and discovery in low Earth orbit and beyond,” Sierra Space CEO Tom Vice said after the test is successful.
“Sierra Space’s inflatable space station technology offers the largest pressurized volume in space, the best unit economics per volume in orbit, and the lowest launch and total operating costs. Having the best unit economics positions Sierra Space as a category leader in microgravity research and product development, providing customers with the most attractive return on investment.”
Sierra Space isn’t the only company looking to build a commercial space station, with SpaceX and LA-based Vast, among others, partnering on plans to send their own designs into space in the coming years.