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Private space station prototype hits milestone

A prototype module for a private space station has passed an orbital milestone after completing its 10,000th trip around the Earth.
Image: View of western coast of Mexico from Genesis I
Bigelow Aerospace
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A prototype module for a private space station has passed an orbital milestone after completing its 10,000th trip around the Earth.

Genesis 1, an inflatable module built by the Las Vegas, Nev.-based firm Bigelow Aerospace, passed the 10,000-orbit mark as it nears the beginning of its third year of unmanned operations, its builders announced late Thursday.

Bigelow Aerospace launched Genesis 1 atop a converted intercontinental ballistic missile on July 12, 2006, to test its ability to self-inflate and operate in Earth orbit.

Now, more 660 days later, the spacecraft's exterior cameras have taken some 14,000 images that include snapshots of all seven of Earth's continents. Its solar panels have also continuously powered electrical systems for about 15,840 hours, Bigelow Aerospace officials said.

Led by businessman Robert Bigelow, owner of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain and other enterprises, Bigelow Aerospace followed Genesis 1 with a successor, Genesis 2, in June 2007. That module also continues to function as designed.

With a length of about 14 feet and a diameter of 8 feet, the Genesis modules are one-third scale versions of Bigelow Aerospace's planned BA-330 modules for manned missions.

Bigelow Aerospace has an expedited schedule to orbit their Sundancer module capable of supporting crews in Earth orbit.

"Since it was lifted into orbit, Genesis 1 has continued to perform its main mission to test and verify systems to be used in future manned space habitats," Bigelow Aerospace officials said in a statement. "Genesis 1 has traveled the equivalent of more than 270 million miles, which would take it to the Moon and back 1,154 times."

Bigelow Aerospace hopes to begin assembling its first crewed station using its Sundancer module in about 2011.

While 10,000 orbits is a major milestone, Genesis 1 has a long road ahead if it wants to catch up to the international space station, which is currently manned by a crew of two Russian cosmonauts and one U.S. astronaut as it circles the Earth. NASA and its international partners plan to launch the lab's largest laboratory, Japan's Kibo module, later this month.

The international space station celebrates its 10th anniversary this year and its oldest component — Russia's Zarya control module — surpassed the 50,000-orbit mark in August 2007 to complete what was then a 1.3 billion-mile trek. When fully assembled in 2010, the space station is expected to rival a football field in length, include as much living space as a five-bedroom home and carry a crew of six astronauts.