Following its launch from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on March 22, the Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo vehicle will dock with the International Space Station (ISS). ISS astronauts will unload the craft’s cargo, but leave behind an experiment. Once undocked and at a safe distance, NASA personnel based in Dulles, Va. will literally ignite the Spacecraft Fire Experiment (Saffire), which is meant to test how fire acts in microgravity.
“Saffire will be the biggest man-made fire ever in space,” said Gary Ruff, the project manager of NASA’s Spacecraft Fire Safety Demonstration, in a statement. “Currently, we can only conduct small combustion experiments in the microgravity environment of the space station. Saffire will allow us to safely burn larger samples of material without added risk to the station or its crew.”
According to NASA, previous fire experiments in space were limited to sizes no larger than 10 cm in both length and width.
Designed by NASA’s Glenn Research Center, the experiment will be contained within a roughly two-by-three-by-four-foot module loaded aboard Cygnus. An avionics bay, outfitted with equipment to record the experiment and send the data back to Earth, is situated next to a compartment where the experiment will be conducted.
“Saffire seeks to answer two questions,” the experiment’s principal investigator David Urban said in a statement. “Will an upwards-spreading flame continue to grow or will microgravity limit the size? Secondly, what fabrics and materials will catch fire and how will they burn?”
The first Saffire experiment will use sample material 16 inches wide and 37 inches long.
Though the experiment will run for only a few hours, the Cygnus will remain in orbit for seven days to complete data transmission. Afterwards, the spacecraft will re-enter the Earth’s orbit and burn up over the Pacific Ocean.
Two subsequent experiments, Saffire-II and Saffire-III, will be held in 2016. Like Saffire-I, the experiments will be flown aboard an Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo vehicle destined for the ISS.
Three more experimental modules, Saffire-IV, Saffire-V, and Saffire-VI, are slated for launch in 2018. They’ll experiment with flame spread, smoke propagation, detection, and fire suppression, according to NASA.
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