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NASA Experiment Studies Next-Generation Smoke Detectors

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A candle flame in Earth’s gravity (left) and microgravity (right) show the difference in the processes of combustion in microgravity. (NASA/Glenn Research Center)
As frightening as a fire is on Earth, it’s even scarier in space. “If a chair is on fire in your home, you have time to get out. In a spacecraft, you don’t,” said NASA scientist Dr. David Urban. “You have to detect smoke in an early pre-fire state, so you can stop it before it starts.”

Urban and his team at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, OH, are developing an experiment for the International Space Station (ISS) that will help in designing smoke detectors that are sensitive enough to catch fires early, but not so sensitive as to cause false alarms.

Conventional smoke detectors work by detecting particles in the air that are about the same size as particles normally found in smoke. But smoke particles in space are bigger than those on Earth. So far, nobody knows exactly how big those particles are.

“Smoke particles form differently in microgravity than they do on the ground,” said William Sheredy, project manager for Glenn’s Smoke Aerosol Measurement Experiment (SAME).

SAME will burn samples of materials normally found in space such as Teflon, silicon, cellulose, and Kapton, and measure the size of the particles in the smoke. Engineers will use this information to design the next generation of spacecraft smoke detectors. SAME is scheduled to travel to the ISS aboard the space shuttle next summer.

For more information, visit: www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/science/space_smoke.html .