Why Would NASA Start A Fire In Outer Space? Because It Can

NASA's takes fire experiment in outer space to new heights; by staging bigger fires, the agency aims to study how flames spread in microgravity conditions.

NASA's plan to start a fire in contained quarters seems like a recipe for disaster, but the agency finally found the opportunity to conduct the experiment. There are also plans for more simulations, in a bid to ensure safety in space flight.

Saffire Experiment Sparks Safety Concerns

The Spacecraft Fire Experiment is dubbed as "Saffire," and it will involve flames larger than previous simulations. The test will evaluate how fire behaves on various combustible materials. The experiments will be isolated, conducted away from the space station to ensure the safety of astronauts.

Previous tests only set fire to items the size of index cards, said lead researcher David Urban. The team were also pressed to find sponsors that would approve of the conditions to the experiment. In a Reuters report, Urban said they "tried for years to find a vehicle and a circumstance where this would work and initially we'd get a 'not on my spacecraft' reaction."

Cargo Ship Wth Flammable Payload

NASA's best option was the Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo ship, which was used to transport 7,000 pounds of supplies to the space station. The cargo ship was launched in March, and having delivered its payload, departed the space station Tuesday with the Saffire module onboard.

The Saffire module contained a sample of cotton and fiberglass, to be ignited when the Cygnus has travelled a safe distance away from the space station. Hot wires will trigger the fire, and air from ducts will fan the flames; the combustion is expected to last 20 minutes.

According to Saffire's Project Manager Gary Ruff, the experiment aims to address one of the urgent dangers inside a spacecraft: "A spacecraft fire is one of the greatest crew safety concerns for NASA and the international space exploration community," he said in a NASA press release.

A fire broke out inside the Russian Mir space station in 1997 after an oxygen canister burst into flame. The fire blocked the path to the escape pod, trapping the crew. Fended with foam and water, the fire eventually died out.

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