Here’s Why NASA Is Purposely Lighting A Fire On A Working Spaceship

To test how fire behaves in microgravity and develop better fire protections

Sometime today, after the Cygnus spacecraft departed from the International Space Station, a fire will ignite, burning its way through fuel until it can’t spread any further.

The experiment, called Spacecraft Fire Experiment or Saffire, is part of a slew of research projects that were sent into space onboard the Cygnus spacecraft in March. It is designed to let researchers see how fire behaves in microgravity, which could help create better fire suppression technology for future missions and spacecraft.

This won’t be the first experiment to start a fire in space, but it will be the largest.

A hot wire will ignite a sheet of cotton and fiberglass 1.3 feet wide and 3.2 feet long. The fire is contained in a special box that will prevent sparks from escaping, but also contains numerous instruments that will record the spread and behavior of the fire in space. After the fire burns out the information from those instruments will be transmitted back to Earth over the next 4-8 days, before the Cygnus capsule begins its descent back to Earth on June 22. The spacecraft will burn up over the Pacific on reentry.

This Saffire project is the first in a series of three planned experiments. Saffire-II, set to launch sometime later this year will look at the flammability of different materials in space, and Saffire-III will be a larger scale experiment, similar to the one that took place today.