In the most extensive experiment of its kind, a spacecraft was successfully used to monitor how fire spreads in the microgravity environment of space, something that might prove vital in designing flame-resistant materials in the future.
The experiment took place on board the Cygnus spacecraft on June 14, which was departing the International Space Station (ISS) on its way to purposefully burn up in Earth’s atmosphere on re-entry.
Before that happened, though, scientists from NASA’s Glenn Research Center ran an experiment on board the spacecraft called Saffire-I, which stands for “safe fire.” Inside a box the size of a chest of drawers (or two suitcases stacked together, or some other comparable size comparison), a sheet of cotton-fiberglass 1 meter (3.3 feet) long and 0.4 meters (1.3 feet) wide was set on fire.
Cameras observed the progress of the fire, which is believed to have lasted for about 8 minutes in total. The fire was confined to the box, but the results could prove invaluable. Check out some preliminary videos of the experiment from NASA below.
The results of the experiment haven’t yet been released, but it looks like everything passed without a hitch. This was the largest fire ever started in a spacecraft (the previous record was only slightly bigger than a credit card), with temperatures reaching 815°C (1,500°F).
Experiments of this size are not possible on human-occupied spacecraft like the ISS, for obvious safety reasons in case anything goes wrong. Cygnus provided a unique opportunity to perform the experiment on a spacecraft that was being discarded anyway, with re-entry planned for Wednesday, June 22.
This is the first of three Saffire missions. And, as mentioned above, it’s hoped that they will help determine flammability limits for spacecraft materials in the future, something that will be useful as we continue to explore the cosmos.