Starting a fire on the International Space Station might not sound like such a good idea.
But that's just what researchers have been doing since 2009—albeit with very small flames in controlled conditions. Working remotely from a NASA center in Cleveland, they ignite small droplets of liquid fuel in a combustion chamber on the space station.
The three-year-old project is called the Flame Extinguishment Experiment, or FLEX. A second round of experiments just began in January. And a predecessor to FLEX flew on several space shuttle missions in the 1990s.
Why all the interest in space flames? Well, fire in microgravity is a curious creature, and researchers would like to have a better understanding of how it behaves. The buoyant forces that cause hot air to rise and cold air to sink don't really work in the absence of gravity. And the shape of the flame itself is different in space. When a droplet of fuel ignites, the flame surrounds it as a sphere about the size of an olive.
The results of the experiments could help improve fire-fighting technology in space. Which, I think we can agree, is a good idea indeed.
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast,]