Fire is something NASA takes great efforts to avoid but on this rocket launching on Tuesday evening, an experiment that will deliberately start a fire in space. Engineers are hoping to learn more about how fire spreads in zero gravity, and with that knowledge make safer space missions.
Gary RUFF, co-investigator for Saffire “The specific objective is to look at how large a fire can get in space if it were to start on a material, let’s say a large piece of material, how fast it can grow and whether it reaches a steady size or continues to grow in size as it propagates.”
Called Saffire, the experiment is housed in a Cygnus re-supply craft bound for the International Space Station. After docking with the ISS, the Cygnus will be unpacked except Saffire. The Cygnus will be loaded with trash and depart the ISS. Only then will the experiment happen.
NASA scientists on the ground will trigger the burning and instruments on board will record data. Then it will orbit for roughly six days while the data is sent down. Only then will it do what Cygnus craft normally do: re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere burning up in the process.
“We’ve done combustion science experiments on ISS. In general, they’ve been about the size of a notecard, if even that. On Safire 1, what we are going to be doing is burning a sample that is that big. So if this were to burn on a spacecraft, it would be a big deal.”
Most of what’s on the ISS is made from burn resistant materials but even so, NASA isn’t taking any chances. It also doesn’t want to deal with the clean up. As Cygnus is destined for a fiery end, it makes the perfect vessel.
“The big picture objective of course is to learn some things about fire safety in spacecraft that will help us to provide the right equipment and the right procedures for astronauts as they go on long-duration exploration missions.”
So a routine re-supply mission to the ISS could have long term benefits.