On the list of things you're not advised to do in closed quarters with a limited oxygen supply, lighting a fire definitely ranks high. But this week, NASA did exactly that: The agency intentionally ignited a "large scale fire" aboard a spacecraft. This Orbital ATK resupply vehicle just became the world's largest flaming trashcan in space. Image: ESA/Tim Peake
Has our benevolent space agency finally lost its mind? Not exactly. NASA has been planning the pyrotechnic experiment, dubbed Saffire I, for some time now. The fire was ignited remotely yesterday morning, aboard an Orbital ATK Cygnus resupply vehicle that undocked from the ISS stuffed full of space trash several hours earlier. It was the first in a series of three planned fire experiments, which, as Gizmodo reported in March, seek to better understand the dynamics of fire in microgravity so that our astronauts will be well-prepared should they ever come face-to-face with this nightmarish possibility.
The experiment took place in a 1m-by-1m-by-1.5m sealed box containing a sheet of cotton fibreglass test material. Images and a slew environmental data — including temperature, O2 and CO2 levels — are now being transmitted to Orbital ATK and engineers at NASA's Glenn Research Center, who will be analysing the results over the coming weeks. Two additional Saffire experiments are scheduled to fly aboard future resupply missions.
Although the space agency has yet to release images, a press release issued this morning calls the experiment a "success". We are going to assume that's code for "there is no large, out of control, flaming ball of space trash whizzing overhead faster than a speeding bullet right now."
While we wait for photographic proof, NASA has released some, er, teaser graphics. I guess you could say the journey to Mars is going to be lit.