Why is NASA purposely starting fires on the ISS?

Here's why NASA is purposely setting fires on the ISS.
Image: NASA

Whether it’s a car, plane, or boat, the idea of a fire starting on a vehicle is one of the scariest things for operators and passengers. Thinking of a fire aboard the International Space Station (ISS) is more frightening than all of those scenarios combined. So, why is NASA purposely setting fires on the orbiting lab?

As it turns out, the space agency is trying to study how fire acts without the presence of gravity. The research could help make combustion on Earth safer and more effective while also ensuring safer interstellar travel for future astronauts. Plus, fire in space is nothing short of mesmerizing.

Spherical Burn

On Earth, a fire burns with upward moving, flickering flames that everyone recognizes. That’s because gravity pulls cool, dense gases towards the base of the fire. Of course, this allows its flames to burn upward.

In space, things work a little differently. There, fire burns in a sphere. No, it’s not a firebender working some sort of magic. Since microgravity doesn’t pull gases in a certain direction, the fire simply combusts in an expanding nature from its point of origin.

But how does NASA get away with setting fires on the ISS? Unsurprisingly, the agency has a sophisticated system in place that allows crewmembers to play with fire without being in any real danger. The Combustion Integrated Rack (CIR) went up to the station in 2008. Now, the crew is using that system to safely conduct its microgravity combustion experiments.

While the research is groundbreaking and may have huge implications for life down on Earth, it is still a little nerve-wracking. After all, one wrong move and astronauts could have a life-or-death fire on their hands in an environment that doesn’t allow for easy extinguishing.

Earthbound Research

Besides the spherical nature of fire in space, NASA astronauts have discovered that things combust at much lower temperatures than they do on Earth. This research could have a huge impact on how things like engines are designed.

NASA researcher Daniel Dietrich says, “It’s not only important from a nerdy theoretical combustion point of view, but also from a practical point of view. The low-temperature chemical reactions that we can study on facilities like the space station are very important in real combustion systems like engines.”

Meanwhile, the orbiting lab’s experiments aim to find more efficient ways to burn gas fuels. Teams are studying the amount of sooty carbon given off by certain types of flames. They believe that their findings could help create cleaner combustion systems that give off minimal pollution.

The research going on aboard the ISS never ceases to amaze. The station’s latest fire research project is a hot topic to watch going forward.