A privately built space station prototype was successfully launched into orbit Thursday from a Russian missile base, kicking off the second test flight for Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace.
Genesis 2, an inflatable module laden with cameras, personal items and a Space Bingo game, rocketed spaceward atop a Dnepr booster from a silo at Yasny Launch Base, an active strategic missile base in Russia's Orenburg region. Liftoff occurred at 11:02 a.m. ET, which was near evening at the Russian launch site.
"It was beautiful," Bigelow Aerospace corporate counsel Mike Gold, who attended the launch, told Space.com immediately after the Dnepr blastoff. "Genesis 1 is about to have company."
Genesis 2 is a near-twin of Bigelow Aerospace's Genesis 1 module, which launched in July 2006 and remains operational today, but carries a series of enhancements and additional cargo. Both spacecraft are prototypes for future commercial orbital complexes that Bigelow Aerospace and the company's founder and president, Robert Bigelow, hope to offer for use by private firms and national space agencies.
Gold added that the launch and orbiting of Genesis 2 was the first step, with ground operators anticipating to hear from the spacecraft via ground stations to verify its health and status. Initial signals received at 6:20 p.m. ET told controllers that Genesis 2's batteries were powering up and that the internal air pressure was rising. Later still, pictures sent back from orbit indicated that the vehicle's solar arrays were deployed.
"This is excellent news," Gold said on confirmation that Genesis 2 was operating well in Earth orbit. "I'm a little overwhelmed right now. We still have steps to go through. We're early in the mission ... but this is all good news."
Midafternoon rains at the Russian missile site brought some concern that the launch would be delayed, but the showers cleared in time for liftoff. A brief communications issue in Russia also delayed confirmation that Genesis 2 separated from its Dnepr booster, prompting a few tense moments.
"Any deviation from nominal magnifies the anxiety," Bigelow Aerospace program manager Eric Haakonstad said in a statement. "When it came in four minutes later, it was a big relief."
Thursday's launch came after a series of delays for Genesis 2, most recently due to return to flight efforts by Dnepr rocket launch provider ISC Kosmotras. The joint Russian-Ukrainian firm launched two successful flights on April 17 and June 15 this year to recover from a failed space shot in July of last year.
Familiar look, new spacecraft
The Genesis 2 module sports a look similar to its Genesis 1 predecessor, but carries a suite of new sensors and avionics to monitor and control the spacecraft in orbit. The sensors will watch over internal pressure, temperature, vehicle attitude control and radiation levels, Bigelow Aerospace officials said.
Once in space, the 15-foot (4.4-meter) module is designed to deploy eight solar arrays and expand from its launch width of 6.2 feet (1.9 meters) to a flight diameter of 8 feet (2.54 meters). Genesis 2 carries 22 cameras - significantly more than the 13 imagers aboard Genesis 1 - to record scenes within the spacecraft's 406-cubic-foot (11.5-cubic-meter) volume.
Unlike its predecessor, Genesis 2 also sports a multitank system to inflate the module with compressed air. That improvement, the firm has said, adds vital redundancy in the inflation process and allows better control of the craft's gas supplies.
If all goes well, Genesis 2 is expected to have a long orbital life akin to that of Genesis 1, which continues to operate nearly a full year after its launch last July 12. Bigelow Aerospace officials said the older module could continue to function through the next eight to 13 years.
All aboard Genesis 2
Genesis 2 is the first Bigelow Aerospace module to carry a clutch of personal items under the firm's "Fly Your Stuff" campaign, which allowed paying customers to load photographs and other possessions to ride into orbit and be captured by onboard cameras.
Also tucked aboard Genesis 2 are a Space Bingo game and a "Biobox" experimental package filled with ant farms, scorpions and Madagascar hissing cockroaches.
The Space Bingo game is chiefly aimed at entertainment, with no actual wagering involved, and is slated to begin operations a few months after launch. Bigelow Aerospace officials said the so-called Bingo Box will use fans and levers to autonomously mix and select bingo balls during games presented on the firm's Web site.
Genesis 2's Biobox, meanwhile, is a three-chamber pressurized vessel with compartments for biological specimens to be observed by onboard cameras.
In addition to the hissing cockroaches, the same type that flew aboard Genesis 1, the Biobox's chambers contain a group of South African flat rock scorpions, one of which was named Antares by a fifth-grade class in Pennsylvania. A farm of California red harvester ants rounds out Genesis 2's biological payload, the camera views of which are expected to be available on the Bigelow Aerospace website during the mission.
Step toward larger modules
The Genesis 2 and 1 modules are one-third scale versions of Bigelow Aerospace's planned manned orbital vehicles that are expected to begin flying as early as 2010.
Next year, the firm plans to launch Galaxy — another pathfinder module that builds on the Genesis vehicles — before flying its first crew-rated spacecraft Sundancer in 2010. Galaxy is slated to have 45 percent more habitable space than the Genesis craft, with a pressurized volume of about 589 cubic feet (16.7 cubic meters).
The three-person, 6,356-cubic-foot (180-cubic-meter) volume Sundancer is expected to be bolstered by the addition of a connecting node and propulsion bus in 2011 to lay the foundation to support Bigelow Aerospace's planned BA 330 module. The larger BA 330 is expected to include an 11,653-cubic-foot (330-cubic meter) habitable volume, when fully inflated, and is slated to dock with Sundancer and its node-propulsion bus by 2012.
In pre-liftoff action Thursday, due to the rain at the launch area, a baseball game that included Robert Bigelow was played inside the large satellite integration and test building on the base. "Just another example of Bigelow Aerospace innovation ... we don't let anything stop us," Gold said.
Gold noted that technical and procedural changes have been made of late to the Dnepr launch-for-hire business. Those changes were demonstrated by two recent successful launches of the booster. Steps taken were brought about due to the failure of the Dnepr booster last July 26.
"With Genesis 1 we put one foot ahead of us. With Genesis 2 we put another foot ahead of us, which means that we're walking," said Gold. "I look forward to running and what that's going to be like at Bigelow Aerospace."
Space.com special contributor Leonard David contributed to this report from Boulder, Colo. This report also has been updated by MSNBC.com.