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NASA intentionally sets fires on board orbiting Cygnus spacecraft during the Saffire experiment.
OUT OF THIS WORLD | Earth, Space And The Stuff In Between - a daily journey through weather, space and science with meteorologist/science writer Scott Sutherland

NASA to play firebug aboard robotic spacecraft on Tuesday

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Monday, June 13, 2016, 8:01 PM - Fires in space are fascinating, but incredibly dangerous, and NASA is now set to intentionally light one on board Orbital's Cygnus spacecraft on Tuesday, all in the name of science and safety.

Tune in here, via the NASA TV livestream below, to watch as the Canadarm2 detaches the Cygnus uncrewed cargo craft from the space station, and releases the spacecraft for its orbit around the Earth prior to re-entry. The Cygnus craft, operated by Orbital Sciences, is not designed to survive re-entry. It will burn up somewhere over the south Pacific Ocean, destroying itself and its load of space station garbage, but not before performing an important science experiment that will help keep astronauts safer on future space missions.

The release of the Cygnus will be at around 9:30 a.m. ET. Coverage beings at 9 a.m. ET.

Given how long humans have dealt with fire here on Earth, right from the earliest days of living in caves until the present day, we are very knowledgeable about how flames behave. Scientists have studied the chemistry of combustion and the physics of heat transfer and fluid dynamics, and we can make very good predictions about how fires will start and spread, based on materials, air flow, weather and other factors. All of this knowledge plays a very large part in maintaining fire safety.

When it comes to space, our latest realm of exploration, we know enough to say that it would be very bad for a blaze to break out in one of our orbiting spacecraft. An incidence on the Russian space station, Mir, in 1997, made that particular message very clear. With limited space inside the vehicle, limited air supply, and no way to quickly exit to safety, fire is one of the worst emergencies there can be on a spacecraft. Considerable effort goes into preventing fires, however we have very little experience with exactly how fires behave in space.

Recent experiments on board the International Space Station have given us a glimpse at how strangely flames behave when under the influence of microgravity. Those were the equivalent of lightning a match to watch the flame burn.

Watch below: Fire "jellyfish" on the ISS

A new experiment, called Saffire-I (aka The Spacecraft Fire Experiment), will now take the match and apply it to a larger fuel source. In this first of three currently-planned experiments, a strip of SIBAL cloth - a mixture of 75 per cent cotton and 25 per cent fibreglass - will be set on fire, to see just how the flames spread and compare this to what we know about how they spread on Earth.

Roughly five hours after the Cygnus cargo craft is released from the space station, carrying its load of garbage and the Saffire experiment, controllers on the ground will ignite the cloth, while cameras and sensors record exactly what happens.

According to NASA:

Saffire-I provides a new way to study a realistic fire on a spacecraft. This hasn’t been possible in the past because the risks for performing such studies on crewed spacecraft are too high. Instruments on the returning Cygnus will measure flame growth, oxygen use and more. Results could determine microgravity flammability limits for several spacecraft materials, help to validate NASA’s material selection criteria, and help scientists understand how microgravity and limited oxygen affect flame size. The investigation is crucial for the safety of current and future space missions.

Once the experiment is finished, the Cygnus spacecraft will be deorbited, where it will burn up over the Pacific Ocean.

Source: NASA

Watch below: Science@NASA presents Strange Flames on the International Space Station

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