Of all the things you don’t want to do on the International Space Station, lighting a fire is probably one of the top ones. A fire in any confined environment carries a degree of risk. Add microgravity into the mix, however, and potentially things become a whole lot worse.
Still, astronauts aren’t known for being an overly fearful bunch, which will help them when it comes to carrying out their latest experiment on the ISS: Starting a fire. According to MIT Technology Review, astronauts on the station will be asked to light a fire inside a miniature onboard wind tunnel at some point in the coming weeks. The reason? No, it’s nothing to do with roasting festive chestnuts on an open fire. Instead, it’s part of an “effort to understand how fire behaves and spreads in microgravity.” In other words, this is research which could one day be used to save lives in space, as well as to design better, more suitable space environments.
This will not be the first occasion on which astronauts have been asked to light a fire in space. Other experiments have been carried out in 2008 and 2016-2017. These experiments demonstrated that flames can be achieved in microgravity, although they will spread more slowly than on Earth. In the new experiment — with the somewhat horror movie name Confined Combustion — astronauts will light fires in a toaster-sized wind tunnel to explore how different wall configurations manipulate the direction and flow of fires. The experiment will continue for around six months, with the aim of finding out more about the way in which fire spreads through environments, and what happens when it comes into contact with obstacles.
“The astronauts are often very excited to do the tests,” study co-investigator Paul Ferkul, from the Universities Space Research Association in Cleveland, told the MIT Technology Review. “It’s kind of mesmerizing to see these things burning without gravity present.”
The size of the fires being lit is relatively small, and previous studies have suggested that it’s harder for certain materials to catch fire in microgravity, even when there is a plentiful supply of oxygen. Nonetheless, any kind of fire involves a degree of danger. And that’s before you start lighting fires on a space station 250 miles above Earth that’s spinning around the planet at 10 times the speed of a fired bullet. Hopefully, all goes according to plan.