Who'd be mad enough to start a 'large-scale fire' in a spaceship?

NASA, that's who. Because we don't know if we build right for zero-G fires

The next resupply mission for the International Space Station (ISS) will include the kit needed to light a fire in a spacecraft. And NASA plans to strike a match and make it happen.

The fire's a NASA idea: it knows that fire in space is dangerous but doesn't know how fire behaves in a zero gravity environment. That means, as the Spacecraft Fire Experiment-I (Saffire-I) project plan outlines, “spacecraft designers … base their designs on terrestrial fires and fire standards. While this approach has been successful thus far, there is inherent risk due to the level of uncertainty.”

Seeing as ISS resupply mission capsules burn up in the atmosphere anyway, NASA figures it can't hurt to light a fire inside a returning capsule.

Saffire-1 will be packed with instruments to “measure flame growth, oxygen use and more, improving understanding of fire growth in microgravity and safeguarding future space missions.”

The European Space Agency has helped with the experiment, as it's also interested in space fires. Together the agencies have cooked up a plan to burn “a panel of thin material approximately 0.4 m wide by 1.0 m long.” The un-named material will be in a special box and NASA will wait until the Cygnus craft is well and truly clear of the ISS before striking the match (actually sending a radio signal that heats a wire that will ignite the panel).

The fire will be sufficiently contained that NASA plans to store-and-forward the data it captures: the space agency is confident the systems surrounding Saffire-1 will survive the burn.

Saffire I will ride along with the 5th Cygnus mission, still atop the Atlas V after the Antares failure, which is planned for launch on March 22. A further two Saffire missions are planned, the third just-about replicating the first and the second testing the combustibility of nine smaller samples. Saffire II and III are due to go aloft later in 2016 - on the next two consecutive (and, er, successful) Cygnus missions. ®

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