Private Space-Station Prototype Carrying NASA Experiment

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A privately funded inflatable satellite that rocketed into orbit last week carried a NASA experiment that will study how weightlessness affects genes, the space agency said Monday.

The Genesis I spacecraft, bankrolled by Las Vegas hotel tycoon Robert Bigelow, launched from Russia last Wednesday and successfully expanded in orbit about 340 miles above Earth.

The goal of the five-year mission was to test inflatable technology that could some day be used to construct an expandable commercial space station.

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The experimental craft carried a shoebox-sized payload from the NASA Ames Research Center in Northern California. The mini-lab equipped with sensors and other high-tech systems will carry out experiments to analyze how weightlessness affects cells and small animals.

Scientists hope the project will open doors for future, low-cost research investigating how weightlessness affects the immune system and bone and muscle loss.

NASA's decision to send a payload aboard a Bigelow spacecraft is part of a new trend of an emerging public-private space partnership, said John Hines, who heads the NASA gene project.

Genesis I was the first launch for Bigelow Aerospace, founded by Bigelow, who owns the Budget Suite of America hotel chain. The company plans to launch another satellite this year with the goal of building a working space habitat by 2015.

Last week, Genesis I beamed back the first low-resolution images from its dozen cameras, including a self-portrait of the spacecraft fully inflated. Bigelow has spent about $75 million on the project so far and has pledged to invest $500 million by 2015.