NASA plans to start a garbage fire in space … on purpose

Stop, drop, and roll may be good advice for us mere mortals here on Earth, but when the fire in question is extraterrestrial (and purposeful), all rules go right out the window. While starting a fire in space generally doesn’t seem like a recommendable course of action, it’s precisely what NASA is planning on doing with its Cygnus cargo spacecraft, which was recently sent into space by the launch of the Orbital ATK rocket earlier this week. The spacecraft is meant to restock the International Space Station, but once it has delivered its payload to the ISS, it will be be refilled with trash, then sent on its merry way to … well, combust.

It’s part of NASA’s series of Spacecraft Fire Experiments, otherwise known as Saffire-II. In essence, this will be a fire that the space agency starts on purpose, and for the sake of science. When Cygnus meets its fiery end, it will burn samples of nine materials (using oxygen brought along with it, of course), along with a host of sensors and electronics that will record and transmit data about the blaze. Earlier this year, NASA set a similar fire in space to see how flames actually spread off Earth’s surface.

So what’s the purpose of Saffire-II? As CNET reports, the flames will help humans better understand how fire actually works in space, which could go a long way in teaching NASA how to respond to explosions or other dangerous situations, especially as we venture out farther and farther into the great unknown. It could also show us how to make fuel burn more efficiently here on Earth.

Cygnus itself is expected to reach the ISS on Sunday, and it will meet its maker shortly thereafter. So don’t get too attached to the latest rocket to make its way into space, friends. It’s really only going there to show us what a graceful exit might look like beyond this Earth.