Nasa scientists will ignite the "the biggest man-made fire ever in space" in a bid to research how flames spread in space and keep astronauts safe. The experiment, known as Saffire, will be ignited on a box aboard an unmanned Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo vehicle.
The study is being developed by engineers at Nasa's Glenn Research Centre, Ohio, and will be lit after the cargo vehicle delivers supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). The idea is to monitor the way that flames spread in microgravity so that future disasters can be avoided.
The blaze will see materials burned inside a self-contained 3x5ft module with video images and data sent back to controllers in Virginia. Scientists hope to receive measurements of flame growth and how much oxygen is used.
The difficulty before now was conducting an experiment without endangering astronauts. Fire is a largely unknown commodity in space with researchers acknowledging that fire can be unpredictable because of the lack of gravity.
Heat rises on Earth but with no gravity, flames can disperse in any direction using less oxygen. Results of the experiment will be used to help Nasa develop safer materials and technologies to help keep astronauts safe millions of miles away from earth.
"This will be the biggest man-made fire ever in space," said Gary Ruff, the Nasa project manager. "Currently, we can only conduct small combustion experiments in the microgravity environment of the space station. Saffire will allow us to safely burn larger samples of material without added risk to the station or its crew."
Cygnus will launch from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida on 22 March, atop an Atlas V rocket, with the fire started whilst in free drift, once the six-man ISS crew remove the cargo. It is expected to burn up during re-entry through the atmosphere.
Revolutionary SIBAL cloth, consisting of a blend of cotton and fibreglass, which will be lit from one end then monitored by computer equipment from the avionics bay. Two further experiments will also be conducted later this year.
They include the Saffire-II, which will assess oxygen flammability limits using samples that are 2in wide and 12in long, and Saffire-III, which will assess a second large-scale microgravity fire.
David Urban, the project's principal investigator, said: "Saffire seeks to answer two questions: Will an upward spreading flame continue to grow or will microgravity limit the size? Secondly, what fabrics and materials will catch fire and how will they burn?"