US-based Bigelow Aerospace has entered an agreement with United Launch Alliance (ULA) to jointly launch an outfitted module of the B330 expandable space habitat into a low-lunar orbit.

Under the agreement, a ULA Vulcan rocket is expected to launch the habitat by the end of 2022.

Following the launch, the B330 will function as a standalone commercial lunar station with the ability to operate in a low-Earth orbit (LEO), cislunar space and beyond.

The size of a single B330 module is similar to one-third of the existing pressurised volume of the entire International Space Station.

“Our lunar depot plan is a strong complement to other plans intended to eventually put people on Mars.”

Bigelow Aerospace is currently developing two B330 habitats that are expected to be ready for launch after 2020.

Bigelow Aerospace president Robert Bigelow said: “Our lunar depot plan is a strong complement to other plans intended to eventually put people on Mars.

“It will provide Nasa and America with an exciting and financially practical success opportunity that can be accomplished in the short-term. This lunar depot could be deployed easily by 2022 to support the nation’s re-energised plans for returning to the Moon.

“This commercial lunar depot would provide anchorage for significant lunar business development, in addition to offering Nasa and other governments the Moon as a new exciting location to conduct long-term exploration and astronaut training.”

The B330 module will initially be launched to a low-Earth orbit to undergo outfitting and demonstrating its working capability.

After achieving full operational capability, the B330 is expected to be lifted off by the distributed lift capability of ULA to send the module to a lunar orbit.

ULA also expects to use the distributed lift capability to perform two more Vulcan Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES) launches, each of which will carry 35t of cryogenic propellant to LEO.

After reaching LEO, the cryogenic propellant is to be transferred to one of the ACES, which will carry out several manoeuvres to deliver the B330 to its final destination in low-lunar orbit.