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Universities Space Research Association (USRA) Science Team Studies Fire Safety in Space at NASA's Glenn Research Center

USRA scientists and engineers working with a team of government and university researchers (including Case Western Reserve University) at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland have developed a space flight experiment that will increase understanding of how an accidental fire might behave in space. The first of the three planned flight experiments is scheduled for launch in an Orbital Cygnus cargo vehicle on March 22 from NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

NASA's Spacecraft Fire Experiment (Saffire) will take place in a 3'x3'x5' module carried aboard the Cygnus. Once Cygnus arrives at the space station, the module remains aboard the vehicle while supplies are offloaded. The experiment will be conducted during the return trip to Earth.

An illustration of the Saffire experiment box aboard the Cygnus spacecraft.

Image: An illustration of the Saffire experiment box aboard the Cygnus spacecraft. (Courtesy of NASA's Glenn Research Center)

Saffire will be remotely controlled from the Orbital ATK Control Center in Dulles, Virginia. The experiment will be the biggest man-made fire in space. To date, only small combustion experiments have been conducted in space.

"A fire in space will differ significantly from a fire on Earth primarily because of the effects of gravity. Without gravity-driven buoyancy, flames behave very differently," said Christopher Pestak, Director of USRA operations at NASA Glenn. "Microgravity combustion research leads to the selection of safer materials for use in spacecraft, improved fire detection and suppression equipment for spacecraft, and improved combustion models that are being used for a variety of Earth-based applications including transportation and energy conversion."

At NASA Glenn, USRA's Dr. Paul Ferkul is the lead on the team defining the science requirements for Saffire. According to Ferkul, "Saffire will provide the first data characterizing how a large-scale fire behaves in microgravity. The experiment will extend our database of microgravity combustion tests to include the burning of fuel samples which are significantly larger than ever studied before. The results will foster spacecraft fire safety through an expanded understanding of combustion in microgravity. The knowledge gained will provide vital data for model validation and lead to improved protocols and material selection techniques to further safeguard astronauts from spacecraft fires."

The Spacecraft Fire Safety Demonstration Project that developed the Saffire flight experiment is sponsored by the Advanced Exploration Systems Division in NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. The three Saffire units were built at NASA Glenn using components fabricated in manufacturing facilities at Glenn, NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, and the White Sands Test Facility in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Three additional experiment modules will be designed and built by NASA Glenn and launched in Orbital ATK cargo vehicles beginning in 2018.

About USRA

Universities Space Research Association is an independent, nonprofit research corporation where the combined efforts of in-house talent and university-based expertise merge to advance space science and technology. USRA works across disciplines including biomedicine, planetary science, astrophysics, and engineering and integrates those competencies into applications ranging from fundamental research to facility management and operations. USRA engages the creativity and authoritative expertise of the research community to develop and deliver sophisticated, forward-looking solutions to Federal agencies and other government sponsors.