NASA is sending a prototype inflatable habitat to Antarctica to see how it stands up during a year of use, said an official with the space agency.
"Testing the inflatable habitat in one of the harshest, most remote sites on earth gives us the opportunity to see what it would be like to use for lunar exploration," said Paul Lockhart, director of Constellation Systems of NASA.
The prototype was inflated one last time on Wednesday at ILC Dover corp in Delaware, before being packed and shipped to Antarctica's McMurdo Station.
The agency will use the cold, harsh, isolated landscape of Antarctica to test one of its concepts for astronaut housing on the moon. An inflatable habitat is one of several concepts being considered.
NASA is partnering on the project with the US National Science Foundation, which manages McMurdo Station, and ILC Dover, the company that manufactured the prototype structure.
The three organisations will share data from the 13-month test, which starts January 2008.
NASA's Constellation programme is working to send humans to the moon by 2020. After initial sorties, the astronauts will set up a lunar outpost for long-duration stays, and they will need a place to live.
The agency is developing concepts for habitation modules that provide protection for the astronauts and are easy to transport to the lunar surface.
"To land one pound (0.45 kg) of supplies on the lunar surface, it'll require us to launch 125 pounds (56.25 kg) of hardware and fuel to get it there," Lockhart said. "So our habitation concepts have to be lightweight as well as durable."
This prototype inflatable habitat can be taken down and redeployed multiple times, and it only takes four crew members a few hours to set up, permitting exploration beyond the initial landing area, according to Lockhart.
The structure looks something like an inflatable backyard bounce house for children, but it is far more sophisticated. It is insulated and heated, has power and is pressurised.
It offers 384 square feet (35.68 square metres) of living space and has, at its highest point, an eight-foot (2.44-metre) ceiling. During the test period, sensors will allow engineers to monitor the habitat's performance, said NASA.