NASA is fighting fire with fire.
The space agency is launching the biggest man-made blaze in space. It's the first of a series of experiments in zero gravity designed to address what NASA project manager Gary Ruff calls "one of the greatest crew safety concerns."
On Earth, gravity gives fire a familiar structure, with colder, denser air falling to the base of the flame and heat rising. But without the organizing principle of gravity, flames in space can be very unpredictable.
NASA plans to light the "large-scale fire" inside a cargo spaceship after delivering food, supplies and hardware to the International Space Station. Its commercial partner Orbital ATK is scheduled to launch the Cygnus cargo vehicle from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Tuesday.
The fiery fun begins two months later, as it heads away from the ISS and back toward Earth.
Researchers involved in Spacecraft Fire Experiment I, also known as Saffire I, will remotely ignite a one by three-foot piece of material, a blend of fiberglass and cotton, inside a 3-by-5-foot module. Sensors and high definition video cameras will capture the action, with the valuable data eventually sent back to Earth.
"Saffire will be the biggest man-made fire ever in space," Ruff said 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."
NASA aerospace engineer Dan Dietrich had previously told Smithsonian Magazine that there had been experiments earlier "where we observed fires that we didn’t think could exist, but did.”
David Urban, principal investigator, said in a statement that this and future Saffire experiments NASA has planned seek to answer two questions: Will an upward spreading flame continue to grow or will microgravity limit the size? And, what fabrics and materials will catch fire and how will they burn?
Once NASA has the data it needs from Saffire, Cygnus will reenter Earth's atmosphere and be destroyed in a second, and much larger, inferno.
See the video below for more on the Saffire fire experiment.