A fire breaking out at the International Space Station (ISS) is less than ideal, so astronauts perform fire drills and smoke detectors are placed around the station. However, for an experiment, the astronauts will soon deliberately set fires aboard the ISS.

It is not the first time that fire experiments are conducted at the ISS, as scientists continue to figure out the behavior of fire in space.

Confined Combustion

For a new experiment called “Confined Combustion,” ISS astronauts will fit a toaster-sized wind tunnel with artificial walls and ignite fuel samples inside the device. Over the course of six months, the astronauts will test out different wall settings and configurations to control the speed and direction of the fire.

The idea is to see in greater detail how fires spread in an environment as well as what happens to it when there are obstacle in the way. Through the ISS experiment, the hope is that experts will be able to create better building codes or perhaps design better and safer buildings that can limit the spread of fires on Earth.

Playing With Fire

Confined Combustion is not the first fire-related experiment astronauts conducted in space. In 2008, the Combustion Integrated Rack experiment sought to study the behavior of fire in microgravity, and from 2016 to 2017, the astronauts performed three-part Spacecraft Fire Experiment (SAFFIRE) by remotely setting fires to unoccupied spacecrafts that had finished resupply missions.

Together, the experiments showed how steady fires are actually possible in microgravity even if they spread slower than on Earth, and gave insights as to how fire might behave should an accidental one breaks out.

Fire In Space

Although they seem like simple experiments, such fire experiments are actually very vital for preserving the safety of astronauts in space since it is not impossible for an accidental fire to break out aboard the ISS or perhaps on another manned mission.

In fact, this was already experienced by astronauts in 1997 when a supposedly slow-combusting oxygen-generating canister erupted in flames at the Russian space station. Smoke immediately filled the cabin and the crew astronauts rushed to put oxygen masks on and put the fire out with a fire extinguisher.

However, the fire extinguisher had little effect while water merely turned to steam and even added to the smoke. Fortunately, the fire eventually burned itself out.

Although no one was harmed during the incident, it certainly took the crew members by surprise.

“The smoke was the most surprising thing to me,” crew member Jerry Lineger said of the incident. “I did not expect smoke to spread so quickly.”

In fact, other crew members reported not being able to see their hands in front of them, while Flight Engineer Aleksandr Lazutkin even reported having the instinct to open the window to let the smoke out.

Although work continued at the Russian space station after the incident, it is clear why studying how fires work in microgravity is vital to current and future missions, especially if we want to one day safely take it to places with less gravity, such as Mars with only 38 percent of the Earth's gravity or the Moon with just 17 percent.

Fire Experiment
Astronauts have performed previous fire experiments aboard the ISS. In 2014, the Burning and Suppression of Solids (BASS) experiment sought to guide strategies for extinguishing fires in microgravity. NASA