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FEATURE ARTICLE

Fire in Microgravity

In space, flames don’t extinguish under the same low-oxygen conditions that would put them out on Earth, setting the stage for dangerous flare-ups.

Indrek Wichman, Sandra L. Olson, Fletcher J. Miller, Ashwin Hariharan

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In 1998, Swissair Flight 111 crashed into the ocean, killing all 229 people on board. The culprit turned out to be a smoldering fire in the wiring, small creeping flames that went undetected until they broke through and flared up, which by that point had caused catastrophic damage. In the late 1980s, experiments on US and Soviet space launches discovered a similar phenomenon when fire is exposed to microgravity. In low oxygen conditions, instead of extinguishing, flames break into fingerlike "flamelets" that persist even after normal fires would go out, consuming and burning material. This frightening prospect for fire safety in space led to a NASA program for understanding flamelets. Wichman and his colleagues have built special ground facilities and flown tests on NASA facilities to understand the physics of flamelets and how they persist and sometimes turn into catastrophic conflagrations.


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