Why NASA plans to light one of its cargo ships on fire in space

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Mar 16, 2016, 5:00 PM EDT

With the budget already tight, NASA is getting ready to literally light one of its cargo ships on fire. In space. But there really is a good reason for this.

NASA plans to use an Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo spacecraft to restock the International Space Station (which is fairly standard), then have the astronauts fill the craft up with trash. After that, it’ll be separated from the station, flown a safe distance away and lit on fire. The reason? NASA has never really had a chance to study how a fire spreads inside a spacecraft, so they’re rigging the Cygnus up with sensors to study how a fire spreads, how long it takes, and (the big one here) what they could change to make spaceflight safer.

In a report on the experiment, NASA notes that most controlled flame growth experiments have been limited to small sizes because of the inherent dangers. But, by intentionally starting a large-scale fire inside an empty Cygnus resupply vehicle, they can measure everything from flame growth to oxygen use to how fire moves in microgravity. They’ll also be measuring how the oxygen level changes, as well as the temperature, with internal sensors.

Once the fire successfully guts the craft, it’ll then crash into the atmosphere and really burn up. 

The findings from the test could go a long way toward making space travel safer in the future, considering a spacecraft is basically an oxygen-rich kindling box with virtually no escape in the event of a fire. Hey, it won’t do us much good to build a ship to reach Mars if we can’t manage to keep it from catching fire during the trip.

(Via NASA, The Verge)