NASA lit a fire in space to keep future astronauts safe (video)

NASA deliberately set a fire in a spacecraft to see if a "smoke eater" and carbon dioxide scrubber could make future moon missions safer for astronauts.

The experiment, called Spacecraft Fire Safety Demonstration Project IV, or Saffire IV, continues a research program aimed at better understanding how fire behaves in space. There are six experiments planned in all, with each iteration taking place inside a cargo spacecraft, Cygnus, made by Northrop Grumman. This latest Saffire experiment focused on testing prototype equipment that could be used on Orion spacecraft bound for the moon, where NASA wants to land astronauts in 2024 under the Artemis program.

NASA hires Cygnus capsules to send experiments, food and other necessities to astronauts on the International Space Station. Since the unoccupied spacecraft is deliberately destroyed in Earth's atmosphere after each mission, it presents an ideal platform to test how fire ignites, grows and spreads in space. Investigators wait until Cygnus is a safe distance from the orbiting laboratory, then light the flame while the spacecraft heads for its demise.

Related: International Space Station at 20: A photo tour

An edge-on view of spacecraft material set on fire in space as part of NASA's Saffire IV experiment. (Image credit: NASA)

"We want to take what we learned from the first three Saffire experiments and see how flames spread and grow in other spacecraft conditions," Gary Ruff, Saffire project manager at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, said in a statement. "We also loaded Saffire IV with more diagnostic equipment to see how effectively we can detect fires, measure combustion products, and evaluate future fire response and clean-up technologies."

The Saffire IV experiment was built by Zin Technologies Inc. in Cleveland and surrounded Cygnus' cabin with sensors. These devices monitored oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, air temperatures, smoke concentration and the diameter of the smoke plume. The experiment also included four cameras to watch how the flame grew and spread. In addition to the flame itself, the experiment tested a filter nicknamed a "smoke eater."

Although Saffire IV's results are still being analyzed, NASA released a preliminary video showing a special kind of cloth made of cotton and fiberglass burning and glowing after fire spread through it. The results from this latest experiment, which had longer and stronger flames, will be compared to previous Saffire iterations.

Those earlier experiments started smaller fires that quickly reached a steady size, according to the NASA statement. (Fires on Earth, in contrast, usually grow for longer periods of time.) The spacecraft's size also affected the fire experiments more than scientists had predicted.

The next two Saffire experiments are scheduled for October 2020 and March 2021. Overall, the experiments are designed to teach spaceflight experts how to avert catastrophe when crews are far from Earth and can't evacuate a capsule should flames take hold.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: