Fire on the space station! Astronauts preparing ongoing combustion research.

A screenshot of the Structure and Response of Spherical Diffusion Flames (s-Flame) experiment in action.
A screenshot of the Structure and Response of Spherical Diffusion Flames (s-Flame) experiment in action. (Image credit: NASA )

Similar to the cult 1981 prehistoric fantasy film, NASA is on its own "Quest for Fire" to better understand how flames work in space.

The agency lit about 1,500 flames under six investigations on board of the International Space Station, as a part of the long-running Advanced Combustion via Microgravity Experiments (opens in new tab), or ACME, project. The goal of the project, which began in 2017, used the microgravity environment to better understand the physics, structure and behavior of flames.

"That knowledge can help designers and engineers here on Earth develop furnaces, power plants, boilers, and other combustion systems that are more efficient, less polluting and safer," Dennis Stocker, ACME Project Scientist at NASA Glenn Research Center, said in a recent agency statement (opens in new tab).

 Related:  Here's 7 things the International Space Station taught us in 2021

NASA astronaut time is precious, so as much as possible the ACME team sought to run the experiments remotely from NASA's Glenn ISS Payload Operations Center in Cleveland.

The experiments, housed inside a module inside the station's Combustion Integrated Rack, spanned 4.5 years of in-orbit operations. While ACME is no longer there — it was removed in February to make place for a newer set of fire-safety experiments called the Solid Fuel Ignition and Extinction, or SoFIE — Stocker said the contribution of the ACME experiment set was more than originally envisioned.

"Over 1,500 flames were ignited, more than three times the number originally planned," Stocker said. "Several 'firsts' were also achieved, perhaps most notably in the areas of cool and spherical flames."

ACME's hardware should return to Earth sometime in 2022, NASA noted, and will be repurposed for a new set of experiments that will go to space in the next few years.

In NASA's words, the completed experiments are:

  • Burning Rate Emulator (opens in new tab) (BRE) – demonstrated materials can burn for minutes in the absence of air flow in crew vehicle atmospheres being considered for future missions.
  • Coflow Laminar Diffusion Flame (opens in new tab) (CLD Flame) – yielded benchmark data at sooty and highly-diluted extremes to improve computational models.
  • Cool Flames Investigation with Gases (opens in new tab) (CFI-G) - resulted in non-premixed cool flames of gaseous fuels without enhancements, such as heated reactants, pulsed plasmas, or ozone addition, that have been required in ground testing. 
  • Electric-Field Effects on Laminar Diffusion Flames (opens in new tab) (E-FIELD Flames) – demonstrated the potential use of electric fields to reduce emissions from non-premixed flames.
  • Flame Design (opens in new tab) – demonstrated, for the first time, quasi-steady non-premixed spherical flames, and radiative heat loss leading to extinction for larger flames.
  • Structure and Response of Spherical Diffusion Flames (opens in new tab) (s-Flame) – provided data on flame growth and extinction for the improvement of computational models.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, 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 (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace