These New Space Station Experiments Study Flames In Space

Fire, if uncontrolled, can be quite destructive on earth. The circumstances can escalate exponentially if it occurs in space.

The Solid Fuel Ignition and Extinction (SoFIE) project is a set of experiments launching aboard Northrop Grumman’s 17th cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station that could light the way to a deeper understanding of fire in space.

“With NASA planning outposts on other planetary bodies like the Moon and Mars, we need to be able to live there with minimal risk,” said Paul Ferkul, SoFIE project scientist at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. “Understanding how flames spread and how materials burn in different environments is crucial for the safety of future astronauts.”

Fighting Fire with Fire: Station Experiments Study Flames in Space | Fire  Safety - Flammability

SoFIE will help NASA select materials and designs for spacesuits, cabins, and habitats.

“On Earth, gravity has a profound influence on flames, but in the reduced gravity of space, fire can behave unexpectedly and could be more hazardous,” Ferkul said.

The station’s unique microgravity environment will allow scientists to study the true nature of flames without the presence of gravity.

“SoFIE builds on NASA’s prior flammability research,” said Lauren Brown, a project manager at Glenn. “Like other flame studies, this research will home in on how things ignite, burn, and are extinguished in space. It will provide a foundation for continuing human spaceflight beyond low-Earth orbit.”

SoFIE consists of five investigations to study the flammability of plexiglass, cotton-based fabrics, and other materials commonly used in spaceflight.

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  • Residence Time-Driven Flame Spread will investigate steady and unsteady flame spread with the help of thin spaceflight materials. The varying thickness will indicate if the fire will grow out or go out.
  • Narrow Channel Apparatus will measure flame spread across thick, flat surfaces and compare the results with those from a device used on Earth to test the flammability of spaceflight materials.
  • Growth and Extinction Limit will concentrate on the flame growth, decay, and extinction over the surface of a solid sphere. This will improve understanding of how thick and round materials heat inside and how the flame spread is affected.
  • Material Ignition and Suppression Test comprise a small combustion wind tunnel, a cylindrical material sample, radiant heaters, an igniter, and supporting instrumentation.
  • Spacecraft Materials Microgravity Research on Flammability will correlate Earth gravity flammability test data with data under-ventilated microgravity conditions.

The experiments can also improve fire safety on Earth.

NASA plans to operate SoFIE until November 2025 and may accept proposals for additional experiments during that time.

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