July 14, 2006

Inflatable Spacecraft Beams Back Images

LOS ANGELES -- An unmanned, inflatable spacecraft launched by a Las Vegas real estate mogul has beamed back the first images since it slipped into orbit and expanded itself.

Genesis I sent back several photos Thursday taken by its dozen cameras showing sections of the craft, according to its builder Bigelow Aerospace. The company declined to publicly release the images.

The experimental spacecraft rocketed into space Wednesday from Russia on a mission to test technology that could be used to build an inflatable commercial space station.

Genesis I was healthy with functional onboard computers, solar panels, battery power and pressure systems, said company founder Robert Bigelow.

"All systems are operating," Bigelow said in a brief statement posted on his Web site.

Bigelow, owner of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, has lofty dreams of building an expandable orbital outpost by 2015 to be made up of several Genesis-like satellites tied together.

He has promised to invest $500 million to build a space habitat that could be used as a space hotel, science lab or sports arena.

But first, engineers must test the inflatable technology. Over the next five years, they will study how well Genesis I can withstand space radiation and micrometeoroids. Future missions will focus on docking between spacecraft - another key component to having a flexible commercial space station.

Genesis I marked the first launch for Bigelow Aerospace. Because the flight was experimental, Bigelow had said he expected problems to arise. But the mission appeared to exceed expectations.

Seven hours after entering orbit, mission controllers confirmed the watermelon-shaped craft, which measured 14 feet long and 4 feet wide at launch, successfully inflated to twice that width.

The company plans a second launch this fall that will further test the technology.


On the Net:

Bigelow Aerospace: http://www.bigelowaerospace.com