The Microgravity Combustion Science group at NASA’s Glenn Research Center studies how fire and combustible liquids and gasses behave in low-gravity conditions. This group, currently working as part of the Life Support and Habitation Branch under the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, conducts this research with a careful eye toward fire prevention, detection, and suppression, in order to establish the highest possible safety margins for space-bound materials.
Over the years, the group has established that many materials burn very differently in microgravity than they do on Earth. For example, attempting to stomp out a flame in microgravity could possibly accelerate combustion, at least temporarily (because an airflow is being created that did not exist before). Other interesting findings indicate that microgravity fires can spread faster upstream than downstream, opposite of the behavior of fire spreading on Earth, and that fire is actually weaker in microgravity. As a matter of fact, the weakest flames ever generated were done so in space. During the “Structure of Flame Balls at Low Lewis-number” (SOFBALL) experimental trials conducted during missions STS-83 (April 1997), STS-94 (July 1997), and STS-107 (January 2003), flames were generated in space with power as low as 1 watt—about 50 times weaker than a candle flame.
This is not to say that fire is safer in space, though. Fire outbreak on a spacecraft is just as dangerous as any fire situation on Earth, or arguably even more dangerous, given the inability of astronauts to evacuate. For this reason, the ability to detect subtle variations in temperature in a complex and varied thermal background could prove invaluable in a spacecraft.
Innovative Engineering and Consulting (IEC) Infrared Systems is a leading developer of thermal imaging systems and night vision equipment. The Cleveland-based company was founded in 1999 by two microgravity combustion science researchers from the National Center for Space Exploration Research, an academic research organization located onsite at Glenn. In spinning off their new business venture, the two researchers utilized the engineering know-how they developed in measuring high-temperature flames for NASA space flight experiments.
Several years after opening for business, IEC Infrared Systems received a Glenn Alliance for Technology Exchange (GATE) award worth $100,000, half of which was in the form of additional NASA assistance for new product development. The GATE award was established by Glenn, the Ohio Aerospace Institute, and the Battelle Memorial Institute to assist small Ohio-based companies interested in collaborating with NASA to advance their products and processes.
IEC Infrared Systems used the funds earmarked for NASA assistance to work with electrical and optical engineers from Glenn’s Diagnostics and Data Systems Branch on the development of a commercial infrared imaging system that could differentiate the intensity of heat sources better than other commercial systems. Firefighters, for example, could use the proposed technology to make clearer distinctions between the intense heat of a fire and the lower-level thermal signatures of human bodies in fire-based search and rescue situations where darkness, smoke, or fog can obscure their vision.