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Setting things on fire on the ISS to study flames in space

One of the biggest threats to any space mission, especially those involving astronauts, is fire. Space agencies like NASA create a wide range of fireproof materials for different purposes, but it is still hard to fully protect against fire as differences in airflow and gravity mean fire behaves differently in space than it does on the ground.

Now, a new series of experiments on the International Space Station (ISS) aims to study fire in space to better understand how to protect future space explorers.

NASA astronaut and Expedition 66 Flight Engineer Thomas Marshburn configures the Combustion Integrated Rack to begin SoFIE operations.
NASA astronaut and Expedition 66 Flight Engineer Thomas Marshburn configures the Combustion Integrated Rack to begin SoFIE operations. NASA

“With NASA planning outposts on other planetary bodies like the Moon and Mars, we need to be able to live there with minimal risk,” said Paul Ferkul, SoFIE project scientist at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, in a statement. “Understanding how flames spread and how materials burn in different environments is crucial for the safety of future astronauts.”

A cargo ship launching today, Saturday, February 19, will carry a project called Solid Fuel Ignition and Extinction (SoFIE) to the ISS to be added to the station’s fire research chamber. As well as an experiment into fire suppression and fireproof materials, looking at how flammable materials like plexiglass and cotton-based fabrics are, it will also host experiments into how fire spreads.

“On Earth, gravity has a profound influence on flames, but in the reduced gravity of space, fire can behave unexpectedly and could be more hazardous,” Ferkul said.

The idea is to see how fire behaves when it is in the microgravity environment of the space station, as opposed to the gravity which is present here on Earth. This can then be used to predict how fire might behave in lower gravity environments like the moon or Mars.

“SoFIE builds on NASA’s prior flammability research,” said Lauren Brown, a project manager at Glenn. “Like other flame studies, this research will home in on how things ignite, burn, and are extinguished in space. It will provide a foundation for continuing human spaceflight beyond low-Earth orbit.”

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