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Private craft sends video from orbit

The company behind an inflatable space module that could serve as the prototype for future private-sector space stations has released its first video clips from orbit.

The company behind an inflatable space module that could serve as the prototype for future private-sector space stations has released its first video clips from orbit, showing a whirling view of the sun and Earth as well as a flurry of photos and other mementos floating within.

The video clips from Bigelow Aerospace's Genesis 1 spacecraft, released Monday, are not yet ready for prime time — but they provide a rough idea of what paying customers might see after the launch of Genesis 2, scheduled later this year. The Las Vegas company already is taking orders for flying mementos into orbit and capturing video records of them as they swirl in zero-gravity.

Genesis 1 was launched last Wednesday from a Russian military base, atop a converted Soviet-era intercontinental ballistic missile. After reaching a 344-mile-high (550-kilometer-high) orbit, the craft's supertough skin inflated to 8 feet (2.4 meters) in diameter, using a technology that was developed by NASA in the 1990s but then mothballed. Real-estate billionaire Robert Bigelow licensed the concept for commercial application.

Bigelow plans to test successively larger inflatable prototypes in orbit, leading up to the deployment of a full-scale orbital modules with as much internal volume as a three-bedroom house (11,654 cubic feet, or 330 cubic meters) in the 2012-2015 time frame. Such modules could be used as the building blocks for orbital hotels, laboratories or even sports complexes, Bigelow has said.

The real-estate and hotel magnate says he has spent $75 million on the project so far, and intends to spend an additional $425 million to make the concept commercially viable.

‘Fly Your Stuff’
Along the way, Bigelow has been looking for commercial and scientific applications that could make use of the prototype modules. Bigelow's "Fly Your Stuff" program, due to begin with Genesis 2, would be the first money-making application.

The items that litter Genesis 1 came from Bigelow employees and visitors, and were flown gratis as a test. The personal items are being circulated through the interior by fans, and in a statement released Tuesday, Bigelow Aerospace said the fan operation had to be adjusted.

"The objects are not discernible due to excessive fan modulation," the statement said. "We are attempting to reduce the fan modulation in order to produce less convection for viewing. These continuously running fans will probably need to be put on a pulsed mode to create convection and keep the images in motion, preventing static equilibrium."

Steve Pellegrino, a spokesman for Bigelow Aerospace, told that the resolution of the video clips should become sharper as well.

"We still will be getting higher bandwidth, and that will improve the resolution," Pellegrino said.

Much of the data traffic between Genesis 1 and the mission's single ground transmission station is currently being devoted to command-and-control telemetry, he explained. As the spacecraft's position in orbit is stabilized, more of the data pipeline should become available for video and still imagery.

Bigelow Aerospace said stabilization also should improve video views from Genesis' external cameras, such as that seen in the other clip released late Monday.

The external view shows the sun, Earth and background stars, reflected in the lens of a camera mounted on an end of the spacecraft. The spin of the spacecraft produces a whirling effect, but Bigelow said in a statement that "we are in the process of reducing the spacecraft movement in order to stabilize what the exterior cameras are seeing."

NASA gets a free flight
Another application for Genesis 1 has a far more scientific flavor. Bigelow is flying a shoebox-sized NASA experiment known as GeneBox inside the spacecraft at no charge to the space agency.

GeneBox includes sensors and optical systems that can detect proteins and genetic activity. Future versions of the mini-laboratory will analyze how zero gravity affects genes in microscopic cells and other small life forms, NASA said in a statement.

"During this mission, we are verifying this new, small spacecraft's systems and our procedures," John Hines, GeneBox project manager at NASA's Ames Research Center in California, was quoted as saying. "GeneBox is an example of a low-cost spacecraft model that we hope will provide a short turnaround time for scientists, is responsive to their needs and that we feel will contribute to the Vision for Space Exploration."

NASA said Bigelow Aerospace would activate GeneBox in about two weeks. The mini-lab would go through a round of instrument tests, then send the data down to Earth for analysis. Other partners in the project include Santa Clara University, Stanford University and California Polytechnic University.

The inclusion of GeneBox drew a comment from former NASA scientist Keith Cowing, editor of the independent NASA Watch Web site: "I find it interesting to note that at the same time that NASA is abandoning much of the cutting-edge space biology research that was planned for the ISS [international space station], the private sector seems to be developing an interest in this research — aboard a private space station."