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Here’s why NASA is setting fire to a cargo ship in space

by • March 17, 2016 • No Comments

Next Tuesday, Orbital ATK can commence their Cygnus cargo vehicle to the International Space Station (ISS). Cygnus can bring the astronauts on station food, water, and a 3-D printing device, one of other supplies.

Normally, after supplies are unloaded of Cygnus, the crew may fill the cargo ship with trash and send it back to planet Earth to burn up in the atmosphere. This time, preceding Cygnus breaks apart above the planet Earth, NASA is going to intentionally set it on fire – well, part of it anyway.

Photo of Cygnus breaking up in the planet Earth's atmosphere taken by an ISS crew member / Image courtesy of NASA

Photo of Cygnus breaking up in the planet Earth’s atmosphere taken by an ISS crew member / Image courtesy of NASA

In order to study how fire reacts in a weightless environment, NASA is performing the Spacecraft Fire Experiment, or “Saffire.” Up until now, just quite tiny combustion tests have been conducted aboard the space shuttle and the ISS due to risks synonymous with such experiments.

Saffire can allow NASA scientists to study how microgravity fires react on a much dimensionsabler scale.

After Cygnus leaves the ISS and starts its return to planet Earth, engineers of NASA’s Glenn Research Center can remotely ignite a dimensionsable swath of cloth contained in a 3-by-3-by-5 foot module within Cygnus.

The 16 by 37-inch cloth is created out of fiberglass and cotton, a material blend that is been included in previous, tinyer microgravity combustion experiments. Sensors and high definition video cameras within Cygnus can record the characteristics of the flame propagation along the cloth. The experiment is expected to take a few hours to conclude.

Once the experiment is over, Cygnus can stay in orbit for 7 days in order to downlink the data to ground stations around the world. After the Saffire team has retrieved the data, Cygnus can start its reentry and burn up in the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean.

“A spacecraft fire is one of the greatest crew safety concerns for NASA and the international space exploration community.” Gary Ruff, Saffire project manager

Fire in space has always been a significant safety issue for NASA and their astronauts who live in the confined, oxygen-rich environments of spacecraft and the ISS.

For NASA, the issue was brought to the forefront with the Apollo 1 tragedy, where 3 astronauts were killed due to a cabin fire during a commence rehearsal. Apollo 1 highlighted NASA’s poor emergency preparedness and various types of fire hazards within the Apollo module at the time.

Experiencing such a devastating fire-related disaster created NASA especially sensitive to fire hazards on next missions. For example, NASA firstly chose to bring pencils on early spaceflights. But pencil tips can break off, creating little fire hazards throughout a spacecraft filled with oxygen and electrical equipment. In order to avoid probably causing a short in an electrical device, NASA switched of pencils to specialized pens that may work in a microgravity environment.

Luckily, after Apollo 1, NASA hasn’t been presented with other much like fire-related disasters of that to learn. But tiny scale experiments performed under microgravity conditions have shown that fire does burn variously under weightless conditions. Among other differences, microgravity flames are spherical, pretty than tear-drop shaped.

In a NASA press release, David Urban Saffire’s principal investigator noted, “Saffire seeks to answer two inquiries. Will an upward spreading flame go on to grow or can microgravity limit the dimensions? Secondly, what fabrics and materials can catch fire and how can they burn?”

Next week’s module is the firstly of 3 first Saffire experiments. Saffire II can commence in June and can ignite a mix of 9 various materials commjust utilized on the ISS, which include materials utilized for astronaut clothing. Saffire III can be quite much like to Saffire I.

Concepts for 3 follow-up Saffire missions are in createment to additional know flame spread, smoke propagation, as well as detection and suppression of fire.

“Saffire is all of gaining a advantageous knowing of how fire behaves in space so NASA can create advantageous materials, technologies and procedures to reduce crew risk and increase space flight safety.” Gary Ruff, Saffire project manager

As NASA works to send humans on longer spaceflights additional into the solar process, having a sturdy knowing of microgravity fire can be significant. In order to create the appropriate flame resistant and flame detection technologies, NASA can firstly require to improve their knowing of the science in that it operates.

The firstly big step to attain this goal is scheduled to lift off in the Cygnus cargo vehicle Tuesday, March 22nd at 11:05 pm EST.

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