Wednesday, February 8, 2012

New Scientist TV - Burn baby burn: Fireball engulfs fuel in space

Caitlin Stier, video intern

How would you fight a fire in space? Now NASA's Flame Extinguishment Experiment (FLEX) group, lead by Forman Williams of the University of California, San Diego, is starting fires on the ISS to better understand how to deal with them in microgravity.
Since space flames burn at lower temperatures and require less oxygen than in an environment with gravity, they can be harder to control. "The concern is that fires behave differently than they would on Earth," explains Williams. "The more you can learn about how combustion happens in microgravity, the better prepared you are for fighting any fire that might occur."

In this video, a fuel droplet is set ablaze then quickly extinguished. Flames are spherical in low gravity since warm, buoyant air can't rise to propel them. Thirty seconds later, a bright afterglow formed by a backlit vapour cloud spreads throughout the combustion chamber.
While the first tests focused on burning heptane and methanol in space, the team began a new series of experiments last month to investigate more complex fuels like gasoline, which are actually used in space. They're also examining heptane's mysterious ability to keep shrinking at the same rate after the fire goes out.
If you enjoyed this video, watch a launch escape rocket roar into life or see a celestial snow angel in 3D.

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