Have you ever wondered what would happen if a fire broke out on a spaceship? That's what NASA scientists are hoping to figure out by developing a space flight experiment that will test how fire behaves on a spacecraft after it leaves Earth's atmosphere.
The first of three planned Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo vehicle flight experiments is expected to be launched March 22 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
"NASA's objective is to reduce the risk of long-duration exploration missions, and a spacecraft fire is one of the biggest concerns for NASA and the international space exploration community," Jason Crusan, NASA's Advanced Exploration System director, said in a press release.
NASA's Spacecraft Fire Experiment -- known as Saffire -- is collaboration between domestic and international researchers from 11 universities and government agencies. The experiment will be carried out remotely by Saffire and Orbital ATK Cygnus operators from a control center in Dulles, Virginia.
After the Cygnus cargo vehicle arrives at the International Space Station, the experiment module will stay onboard the vehicle while supplies are unloaded. Then, the actual fire experiment will be carried out during the vehicle's unmanned return flight to Earth. NASA says the Cygnus vessel will break up upon reentry to Earth's atmosphere and poses no threat to people on the ground.
The Saffire modules are designed to document burning large materials in microgravity, like the environments found on the space station or the planned Orion spacecraft that may someday take astronauts to an asteroid or all the way to Mars. Data collected from these experiments will be used to create better safeguards for astronauts who could face potential spacecraft fires.
Franklin Institute Chief Astronomer Derrick Pitts told CBS News that these experiments are crucial in "gaining a better understanding of how fire behaves in space."
"Fire onboard a spacecraft is one of the greatest fears that astronauts have," Pitts said. "We have to keep in mind, if there is a fire onboard a spacecraft they can't go outside, they can't open the windows, they can't call the fire department, they can't use water to extinguish the flames. They have to resort to other methods to suppress flame."
He adds, "In zero gravity, everything behaves differently -- including flame. So it's best to understand how flame behaves and what are the best ways to extinguish flame in zero-G."
This will be the "biggest man-made fire ever in space," noted Gary A. Ruff, NASA's Spacecraft Fire Safety Demonstration project manager.
Pitts recounted that the only real experience of a fire aboard a spacecraft was decades ago on a Soviet craft.
"There was a fire on board. Fortunately, the astronauts on board could control and extinguish the fire, but they had to use the air scrubbing system to pull all the smoke and the other pollutants out of the air," he said. "Again, they couldn't use water, couldn't open a window. So, there are some data points, but this experiment -- a very, very, very controlled experiment -- will provide more information."