On the list of things you’re not advised to do in closed quarters with a limited oxygen supply, lighting a fire definitely ranks high. But this week, NASA did exactly that: the agency intentionally ignited a “large scale fire” aboard a spacecraft.
Has our benevolent space agency finally lost its mind? Not exactly. NASA has been planning the pyrotechnic experiment, dubbed Saffire I, for some time now. The fire was ignited remotely yesterday evening, aboard an Orbital ATK Cygnus resupply vehicle that undocked from the ISS stuffed full of space trash several hours earlier. It was the first in a series of three planned fire experiments, which, as Gizmodo reported in March, seek to better understand the dynamics of fire in microgravity so that our astronauts will be well-prepared should they ever come face-to-face with this nightmarish possibility.
The experiment took place in a 3-feet-by-3-feet-by-5-feet sealed box containing a sheet of cotton fiberglass test material. Images and a slew environmental data—including temperature, O2 and CO2 levels—are now being transmitted to Orbital ATK and engineers at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, who will be analyzing the results over the coming weeks. Two additional Saffire experiments are scheduled to fly aboard future resupply missions.
Although the space agency has yet to release images, a press release issued this afternoon calls the experiment a “success.” We are going to assume that’s code for “there is no large, out of control, flaming ball of space trash whizzing overhead faster than a speeding bullet right now.”
While we wait for photographic proof, NASA has released some, er, teaser graphics. I guess you could say the journey to Mars is going to be lit.
Update 6/16/16: NASA has just received video footage from the aforementioned space fire. The flashing green light is from LEDs installed in the flow duct to aid with exposure. Preliminary data indicates that the test sample burned for approximately 8 minutes.