NASA is playing with fire. In space. Literally

(ORDO NEWS) — A new series of NASA experiments will test how fire works and how to put it out in microgravity in space. In continuation of previous fire analysis missions, this highly dangerous undertaking hopes to improve the fire safety of future colonists going to the Moon, Mars and other planets.

On Earth, engineers often treat furniture, clothing, and building materials to resist fire. In space, engineers must also consider fire prevention measures when designing habitats such as the International Space Station (ISS) or its planned successor.

Unfortunately, microgravity and the resulting air currents cause fire to behave and spread in completely different, sometimes frightening ways. The fact that these patterns only occur in microgravity makes it virtually impossible to test them anywhere but in space.

Previous experiments on the ISS have tried to learn the basics of these unique fire patterns. Now, a new NASA mission, dubbed Solid Fuel Ignition and Extinguishment (SoFIE), hopes to improve on these results by conducting fire experiments in low Earth orbit.

“Fire behaves differently in space,” explains a recent NASA release detailing the upcoming mission. “Changes in gravity and air currents can change the way fire spreads and make it harder to put out.”

This unpredictability is a particular problem for astronauts, who cannot always rely on firefighting techniques used on Earth.

This same issue could affect which materials constructors use in their orbital habitat and which are banned. Issues like these are becoming more important as NASA and other space agencies move ahead with plans to establish human colonies outside of Earth or its closest orbit.

“As NASA plans to establish outposts on other planets such as the Moon and Mars, we need to be able to live there with minimal risk,” said Paul Fercool, SoFIE project scientist at NASA’s Glenn Research Center.

“Understanding how flames spread and how materials burn in different environments is critical to the safety of future astronauts.”

Designed to operate in the ISS Integrated Combustion Rack, SoFIE will test different materials and combustion patterns, as well as extinguishing methods for different types of flames.

NASA describes these experiments as follows:

Residence time-driven flame propagation will explore steady and unstable flame propagation using thin spaceflight materials. Varying the thickness of the materials being tested will help scientists understand when a fire will grow or go out.

– The narrow bore apparatus will measure the propagation of flames over thick, flat surfaces and compare the results with data from an instrument used on Earth to test the flammability of spaceflight materials.

– Limit of Growth and Extinguishing” will focus on the growth, decay, and extinction of a flame above the surface of a solid sphere. This will allow a better understanding of how thick and round materials heat up inside and how the air flow around the sphere affects the spread of the flame.

– The material ignition and suppression test consists of a small combustion wind tunnel, a cylindrical sample of material, radiant heaters, an igniter and ancillary equipment.

– Microgravity studies of the flammability of spacecraft materials will allow correlation of flammability test data under terrestrial gravity with data under ventilated microgravity conditions.

Given the dangerous nature of fire in any environment, these experiments are undoubtedly as risky as any of the space station habitats. However, the information they can provide to future astronauts and space colonists makes these efforts incredibly valuable.

“On Earth, gravity has a huge effect on fire,” Ferkul explained, “but in the reduced gravity of space, fire can behave unexpectedly and be more dangerous.”

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