Space & Innovation

Fire in Space, This Time for Science

A NASA experiment aboard a departing Cygnus cargo ship is designed to improve fire-fighting techniques in orbit.


NASA astronaut Jerry Linenger and his Russian crewmates were lucky to have survived a fire aboard the now-defunct Russian Mir space station in 1997. Now, a NASA experiment aims to better the odds for future space travelers.

The Spacecraft Fire Experiment, or SAFFIRE, is due for its debut run on Tuesday aboard the departing Cygnus cargo ship.

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Now filled with trash and destined for its own fiery re-entry into Earth's atmosphere next week, Cygnus is serving as a free-flying orbital laboratory for a novel fire-in-space experiment.

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"A spacecraft fire is one of the biggest concerns for NASA and the international space exploration community," said Jason Crusan, who oversees NASA's Advanced Exploration Systems programs.

During the Mir fire, which was sparked by a faulty chemical oxygen generator, thick, toxic smoke quickly filled the outpost, impairing the crew's ability to see and fight the blaze. To make matters worse, the flames blocked the crew's route to one of two Soyuz spaceships that would be used in an emergency evacuation.

"We immediately started fighting that fire," Linenger later said.

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"You had to react to the situation, you had to keep your head about you, so I guess it was just a matter of survival."

Flames don't spread in the microgravity environment of space like they do on Earth. So far, scientists have only been able to test small fires in orbit or burn materials for two- to five seconds in low-gravity test conditions on Earth, said SAFFIRE lead scientist David Urban with NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

"Saffire will allow us to safely burn larger samples of material without added risk to the station or its crew," added SAFFIRE project manager Gary Ruff.

Sensors and cameras inside the SAFFIRE module -- a 3- by 5-foot module that is the largest payload that can fit through the Cygnus hatch -- will collect data and take pictures throughout the experiment, which was slated to begin about five hours after the capsule left the International Space Station.

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Cygnus departed the orbital outpost at 9:30 a.m. EDT on Tuesday.

During the experiment, which runs autonomously, a wire will be heated to ignite a piece of cloth, known as SIBAL, that is a blend of cotton and fiberglass.

The 16- by 37-inch sample, located inside the SAFFIRE module, will be burned from the bottom in an attempt to see how the flame spreads, NASA said.

If the flame extinguishes itself, the cloth will be re-ignited at the top to see what happens when the flames move opposite the airflow.

"Saffire seeks to answer two questions: Will an upward spreading flame continue to grow or will microgravity limit the size? Secondly, what fabrics and materials will catch fire and how will they burn?" Urban said.

SAFFIRE's first run will be following by two more experiments on upcoming Cygnus vehicles.