How do flames behave in zero-gravity? Strangely, NASA study shows

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In the Confined Combustion project, astronauts aboard the ISS have been igniting fires in controlled spaces in order to study how flames spread in low-gravity spaces.

  • Past research has shown that flames spread differently in space. The new project aims to reveal more about how flames spread when ignited in various containers, and on various objects.
  • The results could help scientists learn more about how flames spread back on Earth.

How does fire behave in zero-gravity? Scientists aboard the International Space Station are trying to answer that question through Confined Combustion, an ongoing project that involves astronauts igniting and studying flames in different low-gravity spaces.

The goal is to learn more about flame expansion in space in order to improve fire safety for spacecraft, and potentially for future settlements on the moon.

“That is the immediate and most practical goal since Nasa can use the knowledge to improve material selection and fire safety strategies,” Dr. Paul Ferkul, of the Universities Space Research Association, who is working on the project, told The Guardian.

SpaceX CRS-19 Research Overview: Confined Combustion

Over the past month, astronauts have burned ignited acrylic and various fabrics, examining how the flames expanded within containers of varying shape and size. The unique low-gravity environment not only reveals how fire spreads in space, but also how flames expand back on Earth.

That’s because in space there’s no buoyancy effect, which describes how air rises as it heats up. This effect explains, for example, why a candle flame points upward. In low gravity, flames expand much differently, taking on strange spherical shapes that you’d never see on Earth.

“There have been experiments where we observed fires that we didn’t think could exist, but did,” NASA aerospace engineer Dan Dietrich told The Smithsonian Magazine in 2012. “If you ignite a piece of paper in microgravity, the fire will just slowly creep along from one end to the other…Astronauts are all very excited to do our experiments because space fires really do look quite alien.”

The low-gravity environment provides a unique opportunity to study the fundamentals of combustion, which could help engineers design safer buildings and materials on Earth.

“The equations become significantly easier if we get rid of buoyancy,” Ferkul told The Guardian. “We can look at some of the underlying physics that is sometimes masked by buoyancy.”

The lower buoyancy, according to past research, also means that some materials would be more flammable in low-gravity environments.

“Living on the moon is a different environment from space station and Earth, and fires will behave differently there,” Ferkul said. “There’s reason to believe that fires could be more dangerous on the Moon than on Earth.”

This article was originally posted on Big Think

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