NASA plans to set spacecraft on fire | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 23.03.2016
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NASA plans to set spacecraft on fire

Space craft Cygnus took off from Cape Canaveral to the ISS on Tuesday night local time . It carries a firebomb in its cargo. At the end of its mission the cargo ship will go up in flames for an orbital fire drill.

An Atlas V rocket launched spacecraft Cygnus from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida in the US on Tuesday. Carrying food and research equipement, Cygnus is on its way to the International Space Station (ISS), where it is scheduled to arrive on Saturday.

The cargo of the vehicle is remarkable for several reasons. With a payload of 3.5 tons, it is the largest Cygnus transport flight yet. But the content also holds some surprises. For the astronauts, unpacking the cargo will feel somewhat like Christmas, Dan Tani is convinced. He is in charge of the vehicle on behalf of spacecraft builder Orbital Sciences.

Among the gadgets, delivered to the ISS is something called a "Gecko Gripper" - adhesive but not sticky devices that can hold onto surfaces like Gecko feet. Tiny nano-scale hairs similar to those on the reptiles' feet make it possible. Also on board are more than two dozen tiny devices called "nano satellites." These little boxes will be released from the ISS, or the spacecraft leaving the ISS at a later date, to investigate whether such tiny satellites can be useful for future Earth observation missions.

A large fire in space

Another experiment is going to capture yet more attention. Project "Saffire" involves letting the spacecraft go up in flames. The NASA scientists want to find out how fast such a large fire can develop and spread in a zero-gravity environment on board a space ship or a space station - how do flames spread? How large do they get? What fumes does each one generate and how fast do they spread throughout the vehicle? The purpose of the experiment is to gather valuable information about preventing and extinguishing potential fires in future.

NASA Experiment ISS Burning and Suppression of Solids (BASS)

NASA started its BASS series of fire experiments in 2013

Of course, the astronauts are not going to light the fire as long as Cygnus is docked to the ISS. At the earliest, the experiment will start in about two months - when Cygnus is packed with waste from the ISS and ready to return to Earth. After leaving the ISS, the fire will ignite and the collected data be sent back to earth. Only then will Cygnus burn up in the atmosphere.

Cable fires are a likely scenario

The danger of smoldering or fires on space stations is real. The vehicles are technical environments with hundreds of electrical devices constantly in use - starting from air-conditioning all the way to microwave ovens for experiments. Cable fires are, therefore, very likely. German astronaut Reinhold Ewald experienced this himself. On February 23, 1997 he put out a fire aboard the space station Mir.

The dangers to astronauts from fumes must not be underestimated either. It is impossible to air out a space station. Air filters and life-supporting systems have to be used to clean the air from all pollutants after such an incident.

Saffire is not the first fire-drill experiment on board the ISS. Starting in 2013, NASA conducted a series of fire experiments called "Burning and Suppression of Solids (BASS)." The astronauts lit tiny fires inside a fire-resistant glove box. What emerged was a hovering flame around the piece of solid fuel in the form of a capsule.

Tuesday's start in Cape Canaveral took place as scheduled at 11:05 p.m. EDT (Wednesday 3:05 a.m. UTC).

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