One of an astronaut‘s worst nightmares is having their spacecraft catch on fire. Not only would it immediately end their life, but it would also destroy millions of dollars’ worth of scientific equipment, as well.
Fortunately, there has never been a fire in space, but NASA is still cautious… and curious. They want to know what exactly a fire would look like in space. Their strategy? Light a fire in space of course.
Mission Saffire (Spacecraft Fire Experiment), tests will involve torching three different spacecraft.
A Cygnus craft is scheduled for a resupply mission to the International Space Station on March 22. After it undocks with the ISS, it will drift off into space — apparently four hours from the ISS — and become the first spacecraft to be sacrificed for Saffire.
Each test will occur in a three by five-foot module that’s divided in two. The tests will be controlled remotely — in half of the module, high-tech cameras and sensors will record the carnage. In the other the fire will be lit, burning up all of the astronaut’s trash and ISS waste inside. After this, Cygnus will enter “free drift” for about two and a half hours.
These fiery experiments focus on the effect of fire on individual materials. During the first and third tests, NASA will focus on Solid Inflammatory Boundary at Low Speed (SIBAL) fabric burns. They will be ignited and NASA will be recording every detail as it burns in microgravity.
In June, NASA will shift to the materials that surround astronauts 24/7 when they’re up in space. These are the parts that make up the things that keep astronauts safe, such as spacesuits and Plexiglas windows. NASA will select nine fragments of the space station to torch in the name of science.
Former astronaut Dan Tani, who spent 120 days on the ISS between two space shuttle missions, says that lighting this large-scale fire in space is “a big deal.” It surely will be, even though it’s not the first time a fire has been intentionally lit in space.
Three years ago, NASA led an experiment called FLEX. In this experiment, astronauts researched how to extinguish fire in microgravity. Although they were able to extinguish the flames, the fuel droplets kept burning, which came as a surprise. It’s certain that this experiment will come into play somehow during NASA’s planning for Saffire.
Saffire co-investigator Gary Ruff told Express, “One of the big questions in fire safety, whether it’s terrestrial or in space, is how rapidly are conditions in a room or spacecraft going to get bad for inhabitants.”
David Urban, Saffire’s principle investigator, told Wired that NASA is trying to discover if microgravity limits a fire’s height and what materials will catch fire. Analyzing the results will help them better protect astronauts.
When the experiment is all finished, Cygnus and all of the Saffire hardware will re-enter the earth’s atmosphere and burn up. Before it disintegrates forever, NASA will be sure to collect the data and video from the experiment. It will be “downlinked to several ground stations across the globe”, then sent to the Glenn research team in Cleveland, Ohio.
Hopefully, the testing from Saffire will yield results that will help NASA figure out how to contain space fires, should they ever happen. This is incredibly important not only for safety, but because NASA has always had the Apollo 1 launch pad fire of 1967 in the back of their minds, and they never want to have a repeat of that — on Earth or in space.