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NASA’s Starting a Fire in Space

How will flames react in microgravity?

smithsonian.com

It’s the nightmare of any astronaut—a fire that could whip through a spacecraft, destroying both the ability to survive and the valuable science on board. But what would a space fire really look like? NASA isn’t really sure, so it’s doing the logical thing and setting multiple fires in space to find out.

In a new mission called the Spacecraft Fire Experiment, or Saffire, NASA plans to light up three crafts in space. Three separate Saffire missions begin this month, and they promise a fascinatingly fiery experience.

In a release about Saffire, the agency explains that each experiment will be operated remotely in a three-by-five-foot module that’s split into two parts. On one side, sensors, equipment and high-def cameras will be ready to capture every flaming moment. On the other side, there’s enough hardware to start a fire and burn everything inside.

The first and third experiment will target Solid Inflammatory Boundary at Low Speed (SIBAL) fabric. It’s a kind of cloth that’s made of cotton over a substrate of fiberglass. NASA will set the bottom of the cloth on fire, then watch how the fire spreads in microgravity.

SIBAL has been studied before, but it’s not necessarily reflective of things that are actually in astronauts’ built environment. Those substances, like the ISS Plexiglas windows and flame-retardant spacesuits, will be put to the test in June when Saffire II ignites nine different patches of common space station materials, then watches the flames spread.

Space arson promises to be pretty cool, but there’s a more serious reason behind the Saffire program. Past NASA astronauts have already lost their lives in catastrophic fires on the ground. In 1967, for example, Gus Grissom and his colleagues died during the tragic launch pad test of Apollo-1. The official review of that fire led to better procedures and materials for future astronauts. By sparking a blaze in space, NASA could create materials and crafts that make sure future astronauts will never have to suffer the same fiery fate. 

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