In late 2016, NASA intentionally lit a spaceship on fire.
The private cargo craft, called Cygnus, had just left the International Space Station when the first fire was lit. Yes, that means there was more than one fire: three, to be exact.
So, why on earth would NASA light “the largest fire every intentionally set in space?”
The fire was actually part of a controlled set of experiments called Saffire, which were designed to give NASA a better idea of how fires work in space. Fire, it turns out, operates quite differently in microgravity than it does on earth. Some of the most fireproof materials in the world such as fiberglass behave unpredictably when subjected to fire in a spacecraft.
The Saffire project involved lighting a 16”x37” piece of SIBAL cloth on fire inside a moving, falling space capsule. SIBAL (Solid Inflammatory Boundary at Low-Speeds) is a combination fiberglass/cotton material developed specifically by NASA for this purpose. It was designed to light easily but to burn slowly; fiberglass itself is inherently flame resistant, so adding cotton to the textile allowed NASA to study the fire as it burned over an extended period of time.
Fiberglass textiles are a mainstay within American space engineering. They’re used in the construction of space suits, for the erection of durable structures, and of course, within the body of spacecraft themselves. Gaining a better understanding of how fiberglass’ thermal capabilities change when the material is used in zero-gravity situations is a critical building block within NASA’s continued commitment to safety.
Fiberglass as a material poses no fire hazard whatsoever; it is inflammable. When combined with other components such as plastic resins or organic woven materials, the properties of the entire material system change. Because fiberglass’ thermal capabilities so far outweigh those of many other common insulation materials, it’s a natural choice for aerospace applications, including those that take place in deep space.
By learning more about the way fiberglass materials react to fire in space, NASA can better engineer critical spacecraft components with safety at the forefront. Fire is a huge issue in space. Although spacecraft are always built from non-flammable materials such as fiberglass, smoke can still cause ill health effects for crew. Smoke does not rise in space the same way it does on earth, so it tends to be quite problematic in an enclosed spacecraft. The biggest potential risk of fire on any spacecraft is, unfortunately, overheated electrical equipment, so preventing fire from catching and spreading in the event of overheating is NASA’s best option moving forward.
The thermal properties of fiberglass make it an ideally-suited material for high-temperature applications, including those in space. B&W Fiberglass is proud to partner with some of the leading organizations in aerospace to provide better, more innovative glass fiber products and materials.
Would you like to learn more about how our capabilities can advance the safety of spacecraft? Reach out to a B&W Fiberglass representative today.