NASA Will Light a Fire Inside the Cygnus Cargo Spacecraft

NASA wants to learn more about how fire behaves in microgravity.

June 14, 2016, 10:35 AM

— -- NASA plans to intentionally set a fire in space today to better understand how flames behave in a microgravity environment.

The controlled experiment, code-named Saffire, will take place in the belly of the unmanned Cygnus cargo spacecraft, which was released at 9:30 a.m. ET today from the International Space Station. If all goes according to plan, the fire is set to be lit this afternoon -- about five hours after the capsule was released -- ensuring it is at a safe distance from the International Space Station.

A cotton and fiberglass composite material measuring approximately 3-feet by 1-foot will then be ignited by a hot wire to create the largest controlled fire ever in space. The fire, inside the belly of the spacecraft, will burn for an estimated 20 minutes as sensors and cameras collect information about the inferno.

The information gained from the experiment is expected to help NASA determine better ways to detect and control fire in space -- a vital security measure for future crew missions.

After the blaze, Cygnus is set to remain in space for several days to ensure the information from the Saffire experiment is sent back to Earth. The experiment will be repeated two more times this year with other Cygnus capsules, according to NASA.

"Saffire seeks to answer two questions,” David Urban, Saffire principal investigator, said in a statement earlier this year. "Will an upward spreading flame continue to grow or will microgravity limit the size? Secondly, what fabrics and materials will catch fire and how will they burn?"

When the experiment is complete and NASA has its data, Cygnus, which is filled with trash from the International Space Station, will burn up as it enters Earth's atmosphere.

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