Cygnus to depart ISS, then start a fire

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A fire in space: Orbital ATK’s Cygnus capsule is scheduled to leave ISS on Tuesday, when shortly thereafter it will begin a controlled fire experiment.

“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. – See more at:

The departure is scheduled for 9 am (eastern), and will aired live by NASA.


  • David M. Cook

    Makes me wonder why NASA hasn’t been performing these kinds of experiments for the last 50 years.

  • Tim

    Spacex/Musk is the reason

  • mpthompson

    Cool and valuable experiment. David Cook does ask a good question.

  • Edward

    There have been a few experiments with fire, in the past. A match was lit on the Space Shuttle. My recollection is that the match had a hemispherical flame.

    This video has some nice photographs: (3 minutes)

    STS 64 had a “Solid Surface Combustion Experiment (SSCE) to supply information on flame propagation over fuels in space.” My recollection is that the flame did not propagate as expected, and what little it did propagate was uneven.

    In college, my AIAA student group proposed, but did not fly, a similar Get Away Special experiment, so I have been interested in the topic for many years.

    Here is a write-up on the topic:
    “Lighting matches in a spacecraft may not seem like the brightest thing to do in light of the many as-yet-unanswered questions about how materials burn, but that’s exactly why NASA is engaged in flammability experiments. Since 2009, its Flame Extinguishment Experiment (FLEX) on board the International Space Station has explored the behavior of fire in microgravity. ‘By studying candles and flames in space, we can learn how combustion works in various conditions,’ says Johnson. ‘We know that a traditional fire extinguisher in space introduces air currents that only feed the fire and speed up the combustion process, and these studies will help us design better fire extinguishers for use in spacecraft.'”

    Many unexpected and counterintuitive things happen in zero G and in space. The Cygnus experiment is yet another iteration in the learning process.

  • LocalFluff

    There was a fire onboard MIR, you find stories about it easily. The chemicals which absorbe CO2 caught fire when routinely deployed (as in opening a can). It took a while to put it out. One cosmonaut held another in place because the reaction force of the fire extinguisher pushed him away from the fire otherwise. And the air quality deteriorated until the filters in the ventilation system took care of it. But it is so easy to put out a fire in space, just open the window! :-)

  • Edward

    You are close. The fire onboard MIR was not a CO2 scrubber but an O2 generator that used a flame to produce oxygen (now *that* is counterintuitive!). A faulty canister caused the flame to get out of control; my recollection is that it was a three-foot jet of flame. You are right that it was a huge problem, as the cosmonauts sent the American Astronaut into the Soyuz capsule to prepare for the possibility that they would have to abandon the station.

    Similar O2 generators are used on airplanes, especially for emergency air for when the oxygen masks drop from overhead when pressure is lost in the cabin.

    As for opening the windows, that is roughly what they did in an episode of the science fiction show “Firefly.”

  • LocalFluff

    Thanks for the corrections, Edward.
    Opening the window might cause other hazards, but that’s covered by someone elses insurance policy!

    MIR covers several near disastrous failures. A collision that caused an air leak and forced the crew to cut the main power cable in order to close a door. A powerless space station. And on one return to it after having been left alone, the air quality was dismal from mold and other stuff growing in there. Again, I don’t have the details, but MIR was much more “interesting” than the remarkably safe ISS. I think the Russians have learned alot about safety and quality control by participating with the ISS project. Funny that they managed to save every crisis, only four cosmonauts ever died in space flight, and none since 40 years. Somehow they know what they are doing, it works great.

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