Inflatable Space Station Launched Into Orbit

A new inflatable, unmanned test module for a proposed private space station was launched into orbit Thursday aboard a Russian rocket, the U.S. company developing the technology said.

The Dnepr rocket carrying the Genesis II module lifted off shortly after 7 p.m. local time from the ISC Kosmotras Yasny Cosmodrome in Russia's Orenburg region, according to Bigelow Aerospace of Nevada.

The 15-foot-long module was designed to expand to a diameter of 8 feet. Contact with the module was established later in the day and data indicated good voltage in the power system and "decent" air pressure in the vehicle, the company said.

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That was not official confirmation of solar panel deployment and expansion of the outer shell, Bigelow spokesman Chris Reed said. "But all the data indicates that's the case."

Robert T. Bigelow, owner of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain and founder of Bigelow Aerospace, was at the launch site. Bigelow employees monitored the launch at his mission control facility in North Las Vegas.

Genesis II is the second module to be launched to test technology that could be used in future manned commercial space stations. Last summer, Bigelow launched Genesis I, which successfully expanded and sent back pictures of itself in space.

The Bigelow Aerospace design uses flexible material that is wrapped around a core for launch and then inflated with air in orbit. Several modules could be linked to form a space station.

Bigelow has committed $500 million toward building a commercial space station by 2015.