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Fire Experiment Ignites Aboard International Space Station

By Maryland Today Staff

Scientists in the Department of Fire Protection Engineering on Friday ignited their first flames on the International Space Station. Although the researchers themselves stayed firmly planted on earth, their experiments could only have been conducted in space.

“Access to microgravity has been a game changer in several areas of fire research,” said Professor Peter Sunderland. “By removing gravity, we can explore combustion physics in novel ways that will enable dramatic breakthroughs.”

Sunderland is a co-investigator on the experiment focusing on spacecraft fire behavior, using gaseous fuels to determine the flammability of solids in microgravity. The tests are expected to reveal valuable information about how materials such as paper and plastic in microgravity.

As of Saturday, the experiments had burned for up to three minutes, “a first,” Sunderland said. “Because it says you can have a sustained fire in microgravity, the test went well beyond our wildest dreams.”

The researchers demonstrated that a small fire could be sustained in microgravity at 40 percent oxygen, while at lower oxygen levels, the flame went out, said James Quintierre, principal investigator and professor emeritus. “These experiments and their analysis will help make space flight safe from fire.”

The experiment supported by NASA was launched into orbit aboard the SpaceX Dragon capsule on June 3, 2017, and will run through 2020.

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