[Update: Nasa has now released footage of the experiment, showing the material burning in a time lapse video]
Nasa has successfully lit a fire in space as part of its aptly named Spacecraft Fire Experiment, or Saffire for short. Scientists are now planning even bigger combustion experiments in order to learn about how fire spreads in space.
The first of three Saffire experiments was carried out on board the Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo vehicle, a supply spacecraft that departed the International Space Station earlier this week. The fire was lit after Cygnus had reached a "safe distance" from the ISS.
The fire was lit inside a module measuring three foot by five foot module. SIBAL cloth – a blend of fibreglass and cotton measuring 16 inches wide and 37 inches long – was burnt. The cloth was burned from the bottom to see how the flames spread.
"Saffire seeks to answer two questions," said principal investigator David Urban. "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?"
High definition cameras captured the blaze. Images and data from the experiment will now be transmitted to Nasa scientists.
The material burned for around eight minutes, Nasa said. Scientists will now spend the next few weeks analysing the data.
Understanding how fire would spread in a microgravity environment is important to improving the safety of spacecrafts for astronauts. This will become ever more important as space agencies plan longer manned spaceflights, such as missions to Mars. While Nasa has previously carried out experiments on the ISS, the risk posed to those on board meant they were limited in size.
Gary A. Ruff, NASA's Spacecraft Fire Safety Demonstration Project manager, said: "The first of our planned three Saffire experiments operated as designed which is a great credit to all the people at NASA who played a role in its development. The success of this experiment opens the door to future large combustion experiments in the microgravity environment and directly supports the development of technologies and materials that will make deep space exploration spacecraft safer."
Two more Saffire experiments are currently planned. The next will look at oxygen flammability limits, while a third will assess "a second large-scale microgravity fire".