NASA Glenn Experiment Will Set Largest Man-Made Fire in Space

A rendering of the Cygnus resupply vehicle.
A rendering of the Cygnus resupply vehicle. (Image: NASA)
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by Nick Castele

Northeast Ohio’s NASA Glenn Research center is leading a project to start the largest ever intentional fire set inside an orbiting spacecraft. The experiment will take place inside an unmanned supply vessel as it returns to Earth.

Researchers want to know how fire behaves in zero gravity. While scientists can simulate that experience on the ground or in airplanes, this project will allow more time to observe the fire, NASA researcher Dave Urban said.

Speaking on 90.3’s the Sound of Ideas, Urban said a fire aboard a spacecraft is usually considered catastrophic.

“We’re very careful to select what materials we fly, so fly the minimum amount of flammable materials, and almost everything’s built of non-flammable materials,” Urban said. “But people are up there, they need comfortable clothing, they need paper, they need towels. All those things are flammable.”

NASA Glenn spokesperson Jan Wittry said the project will ignite “the biggest fire that we've ever set in space.”

The experiment takes place inside a box stowed aboard the Cygnus resupply vessel. It launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida last week, and will be docked at the International Space Station until May.

As the vessel returns to Earth, researchers will remotely ignite the fire. Flames will consume a large piece of cloth inside that box, as sensors measure the results.

“We’ll see how rapidly the fire grows, whether it attains a steady growth rate, or continues to grow as a fire on Earth will grow exponentially,” Urban said. “And we’ll also see how that affects the vehicle itself.”

There 12 employees currently working on the project, along with 16 contractors, according to Gary Ruff, the experiment project manager.

Another experiment is planned for launch in late June, burning materials typically used by astronauts. A third phase of the experiment is planned for December.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of the project manager as Gary Ross. His name is Gary Ruff.

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