On March 22, 2016 NASA and United Launch Alliance (ULA) launched a two-stage Atlas V rocket with a heavy-laden Orbital ATK commercial Cygnus cargo freighter atop. That Atlas V successfully heaved 7,700 pounds of experiments, supplies, spare parts, and station hardware into a three-day rendezvous orbit – also known as an orbital rendezvous or space rendezvous – with the International Space Station (ISS).
Expedition 47 Commander Tim Kopra captured the unmanned Cygnus spacecraft upon its arrival, using the Canadarm2 robotic arm developed by prime contractor MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) for the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), and attached it to the Earth-facing Unity module of the ISS. One of the new experiments onboard the Cygnus piqued this geek’s interest: It’s called Saffire-I.
Saffire-I is the first in a new series of experiments targeted at studying fire in microgravity environments. “A spacecraft fire is one of the greatest crew safety concerns for NASA and the international space exploration community,” affirms Gary Ruff, Saffire project manager at NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.
Experiments with fire on the space station are not new but had to be limited in size due to risk to the crew. Saffire will enable the scientists to experiment with much larger flames because the Cygnus will be detached from the ISS, reducing any risk to the crew.
Once the Cygnus freighter is free from the ISS, the experiment will be conducted remotely via high-definition (HD) cameras and remote sensors. The ISS crew and Saffire staff will set fire to a 16-by-37-inch piece of SIBAL (Solid Inflammability Boundary at Low Speed) cloth, a fiberglass and cotton mix that has been used in previous experiments. The cloth will be ignited from the bottom and observed to see whether an upward flame will continue to grow or microgravity will limit the size of the flame.
Information gleaned from this experiment is expected to enable researchers on Earth to develop effective emergency fire procedures and new flame-retardant materials specifically designed to help ensure crew safety in space. This mil/aero geek is anxious to learn the results of this and other experiments going on now on the ISS.