NASA intends to start a 'large-scale fire' in space

fire space earth
Credit: Gerd Altmann

NASA intends to start a 'large-scale' fire aboard the Cygnus spacecraft after it undocks from the ISS as the first of three Spacecraft Fire Experiments (Saffire).

NASA intends to start a “large-scale fire” in space, but unless something goes horrifically wrong it’s not like you will look up and see a fireball overhead.

Maybe there’s been too many movies showing how a fire in a spacecraft leads to disaster – action films which allegedly got it wrong – for NASA’s plan to start a fire in space not to sound alarming. Nevertheless, on March 22, NASA will launch an unmanned Cygnus spacecraft, via a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, to the ISS for a resupply mission; after undocking, NASA will kick off the first of three Spacecraft Fire Experiments (Saffire).

What do the ISS astronauts, who have probably seen the same movies as we have, think? Dan Tani, a former astronaut who flew two space shuttle missions and spent 120 days aboard the ISS, said, “Igniting ‘a relatively large-scale fire’ in a zero-gravity environment” is “a big deal.”

Although NASA mentioned the fire in space experiment during a recent press call, NASA Glenn Research Center posted a video last year to explain how the Saffire experiment will go down.

Once the supplies are offloaded and Cygnus is loaded with the astronauts’ trash, it will fly a “safe distance” away from the ISS – “about four hours away” and “on a different orbit” according to Gizmodo – then NASA control engineers in Dulles, Virginia, will remotely spark the fire. Cygnus will be put into “free drift” during the Saffire experiment which is expected to take up to 2.5 hours.

Cygnus, along with the Saffire experiment hardware, will burn up when re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, but not before the data and video from the experiment are “downlinked to several ground stations across the globe” and then transferred to NASA’s Glenn Research team in Cleveland, Ohio.

“Saffire I, II, and III will launch separately in 2016 aboard resupply missions.” Despite plans for three fire-in-space tests, NASA explained, “The experiment is very limited in the amount of data and test conditions that can be investigated. In Saffire-I and –III, the sample material is a single large sample (approx. 0.4 m wide by 0.94 m tall) to demonstrate the development and spread of a large-scale low-gravity fire. Once started, the entire burn of each of these samples is recorded, the data compressed, and downlinked.”

The image below, according to NASA, is of the Saffire Experiment Module with the cover removed so we can see it better. The “hardware consists of a flow duct containing the sample card and an avionics bay. All power, computer, and data acquisition modules are contained in the bay. Dimensions are approximately 53- by 90- by 133-cm.”

Saffire Experiment Module NASA

Saffire II will include “nine smaller samples” having dimensions of “5 cm wide x 25 cm long” being burned. NASA added, “These are burned sequentially with the camera recording images only from the sample being burned. Once started, these experiments run automatically. Because of limitations in time available for downlinking, a maximum of 20 gigabits of data can be downlinked.”

This is far from the first fire to be studied in space or even on the ISS. Three years ago during an ISS experiment dubbed FLEX, astronauts studied “how to put out fires in microgravity.” The flames went out as planned, “but unexpectedly the droplets of fuel continued burning.” They “seemed to be burning without flames,” something called “cool flames” which “can burn for long minutes.” Those flames are trippy-looking as seen in a NASA video which showed the difference between a flame on Earth and a flame in space.

Flame on Earth and flame in space ScienceAtNASA

NASA’s “large-scale fire” in space is even expected to have benefits for Earthlings, such as helping to understand fire behavior “inside mines, airplanes or submarines.”

NASA makes the Saffire experiments sound less alarming than what we might conjure up after hearing NASA intends to set a “large-scale fire” in space. Here’s hoping the words, “Houston, we have a problem” are not uttered and that we don’t look up and see a fireball in the night sky.

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