Flame spread: Effects of microgravity and scale

David L. Urban, Paul Ferkul, Sandra Olson, Gary A. Ruff, John Easton, James S. T'ien, Ya-ting T. Liao, Chengyao Li, Carlos Fernandez-Pello, Jose L. Torero, Guillaume Legros, Christian Eigenbrod, Nickolay Smirnov, Osamu Fujita, Sébastien Rouvreau, Balazs Toth, Grunde Jomaas

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


For the first time, a large-scale flame spread experiment was conducted inside an orbiting spacecraft to study the effects of microgravity and scale and to address the uncertainty regarding how flames spread when there is no gravity and if the sample size and the experimental duration are, respectively, large enough and long enough to allow for unrestricted growth. Differences between flame spread in purely buoyant and purely forced flows are presented. Prior to these experiments, only samples of small size in small confined volumes had been tested in space. Therefore the first and third flights in the experimental series, called “Saffire,” studied large-scale flame spread over a 94 cm long by 40.6 cm wide cotton-fiberglass fabric. The second flight examined an array of nine smaller samples of various materials each measuring 29 cm long by 5 cm wide. Among them were two of the same cotton-fiberglass fabric used in the large-scale tests and a thick, flat PMMA sample (1-cm thick). The forced airflow was 20–25 cm/s, which is typical of air circulation speeds in a spacecraft. The experiments took place aboard the Cygnus vehicle, a large unmanned resupply spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS). The experiments were carried out in orbit before the Cygnus vehicle, reloaded with ISS trash, re-entered the Earth's atmosphere and perished. The downloaded test data show that a concurrent (downstream) spreading flame over thin fabrics in microgravity reaches a steady spread rate and a limiting length. The flame over the thick PMMA sample approaches a non-growing, steady state in the 15 min burning duration and has a limiting pyrolysis length. In contrast, upward (concurrent) flame spread at normal gravity on Earth is usually found to be accelerating so that the flame size grows with time. The existence of a flame size limit has important considerations for spacecraft fire safety as it can be used to establish the heat release rate in the vehicle. The findings and the scientific explanations of this series of innovative, novel and unique experiments are presented, analyzed and discussed.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)168-182
Number of pages15
JournalCombustion and Flame
Early online date29 Oct 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2019

Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of 'Flame spread: Effects of microgravity and scale'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this