With plans already being made to send manned missions to distant parts of the galaxy, it's important for NASA to identify all possible issues spacefarers might face during their journey. One such concern is how to handle fires while in space.

Researchers at NASA's Glenn Research Center in Ohio worked with colleagues from 10 other universities and government agencies around the world to develop the Spacecraft Fire Experiment (Saffire), a three-part project that would test the behavior of fires in the environment of space.

While similar experiments have been conducted onboard the International Space Station (ISS) before, scientists had to create a way to observe the full extent of the combustion without endangering the lives of the ISS's crew. Earlier attempts on the orbital facility had all been done only on a small scale.

"We tried for years to find a vehicle and a circumstance where this would work and initially we would get a 'not on my spacecraft' reaction," David Urban, lead investigator for the Saffire project, said.

For the Saffire experiment, the multi-organizational team built a 3- x 5-foot enclosure with a flow duct and avionics bay.

This device allows the team to burn a 3-foot-long cotton-fiberglass material in order to observe how fires would react to the space environment. The Saffire enclosure was placed aboard an Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft and taken into space.

Fire In Space

The first of the three planned experiments was successfully carried out on June 14. The researchers lit the cotton-fiberglass material as soon as the Cygnus spacecraft reached a safe distance from the ISS and allowed it to burn for about eight minutes.

Data from the experiment have been collected and are now being analyzed by the Saffire researchers.

Gary A. Ruff, project manager for fire safety demonstration at NASA, said the first of the three Saffire experiments was carried out as intended by project designers.

He pointed out that the success of the project now opens the door for larger combustion experiments to be conducted in microgravity environment in the future, with the goal of developing materials and technologies that will help make deep space exploration safer for participants.

The next two Saffire experiments will assess limitations in oxygen flammability and the behavior of a large-scale fire in microgravity. Both experiments will be included in Orbital ATK's upcoming Cygnus resupply missions to the ISS.

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