NASA Is Planning to Intentionally Set a Spacecraft on Fire in Space

March 18, 2016 | Elizabeth Knowles

Artist's impression of the Cygnus spacecraft orbiting Earth
Photo credit: Screenshot from NASA video

It’s part of an experiment to determine how fire travels in microgravity.

Fire is a concern in space. Not in outer space since outside a spacecraft or space station there is not oxygen for fire to burn, but inside where astronauts require oxygen to breath. In order to better understand how fire acts in microgravity, NASA has planned a series of three experiments called Saffire I, II and III, the first of which is set to take place soon.

“NASA’s objective is to reduce the risk of long-duration exploration missions, and a spacecraft fire is one of the biggest concerns for NASA and the international space exploration community,” said Jason Crusan, NASA’s Advanced Exploration System director in a press release.

The astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are sent resupply ships, such as Orbital ATK’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft, on a regular basis. On March 22, Cygnus will dock, the astronauts will collect their supplies, fill it with garbage and send it back on its way towards Earth where it would typically burn up in the atmosphere.

SEE ALSO: Will NASA Abandon the ISS?

However, in this case, Cygnus won’t have finished serving its purpose yet. Once it is about four hours away from the ISS, the fire will be lit remotely. The astronauts in the ISS will not be able to observe what happens, but thanks to many instruments measuring oxygen and carbon dioxide levels and temperature, and filming the 15 to 20 minute long event, NASA scientists will gain knowledge about how to prevent and stop the spread of fire in space. Once the experiment is completed, the spacecraft will spend seven days in space transferring all the data back to Earth, after which it will be burnt up in the atmosphere as usual.

NASA has previously lit small objects on fire in space, but this will be very different. In the past the objects were smaller than 4 inches in width and length, but this time the material, a blend of fiberglass and cotton, will be 37 inches long by 16 inches wide.

“Saffire will be the biggest man-made fire ever in space. Currently, we can only conduct small combustion experiments in the microgravity environment of the space station. Saffire will allow us to safely burn larger samples of material without added risk to the station or its crew.” said Gary A. Ruff, NASA’s Spacecraft Fire Safety Demonstration project manager in NASA’s press release. “Using the Cygnus cargo vehicle to host Saffire offers a unique opportunity to conduct beneficial spacecraft fire safety research using existing mission profiles.”

According to principal investigator David Urban in a different NASA press release, the two questions the Saffire experiments are seeking to answer are: “Will an upward spreading flame continue to grow or will microgravity limit the size?” and “what fabrics and materials will catch fire and how will they burn?”

Three more experiments, Saffron IV, V and V, are still in the concept phase but will involve testing “flame spread, smoke propagation, detection and suppression of fire.”

Watch NASA’s explanatory video below:


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