Part inflatable room and very small part bouncy castle, the International Space Station (ISS) is about to take delivery of the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM for short.
The specially designed habitat will arrive at the ISS next week in compact form before being inflated. The living pod is the result of years of collaboration between NASA, which came up with the original design, and private space firm Bigelow, which has invested in its development.
The inflatable room will be occupied for brief periods by ISS astronauts for testing purposes, Space.com reported. If it functions well, BEAM's light weight and compact design could lead to the development of larger habitation structures for future crews heading into deep space.
BEAM expands to five times the size of its uninflated state to offer 565 cubic feet of space, and allows for multiple pods to be attached to create a much larger living space.
Tests during its two-year trial will include learning how its several layers of tough fabric, which include a bullet-resistant polymer called Vectran, stand up to hazards such as space debris, while on-board sensors will monitor how it deals with environmental factors such as temperature and radiation.
BEAM will arrive at the ISS as part of the next SpaceX cargo resupply mission scheduled for liftoff on April 8.
Related: NASA to showcase its greener and less toxic rocket fuel
"The BEAM program is our company's next logical step in development, and it serves as our pathfinding to building manned spacecraft for the future," Bigelow's Lisa Kauke said. "By attaching BEAM to the ISS, we'll be able to evaluate our technology, elevate its technology readiness level and demonstrate that we are ready to support humans in space."
The module is expected to be attached to the outside of the space station toward the end of May before being inflated. Once the trial ends, BEAM will be jettisoned from the station and burn up during reentry into Earth's atmosphere.