In the movie “Gravity” Sandra Bullock’s character battles a fire aboard the International Space Station. Combustion is a huge concern in space habitats. Microgravity fires are challenging to detect and fight because they behave very differently in the absence of buoyancy. On Earth, buoyancy makes hot air rise from a flame while cooler air is pulled in near the base. This feeds fresh oxygen to the teardrop-shaped flame. In space, there is no buoyancy and flames are spherical. They also burn at lower temperatures and lower oxygen concentrations–so low, in fact, that the oxygen depletion necessary to extinguish a fire is lower than what humans require to survive.
No buoyancy makes it harder for fires to spread, but it also makes them harder to detect since smoke doesn’t rise toward a detector on the ceiling. Instead, fire detectors aboard the Space Station are housed in the ventilation system that moves air through the modules constantly. In the event of a fire, astronauts use a three-step fire suppression system. First, they shut off the ventilation system to delay the fire’s spread. Then they shut off power to the affected unit, and, finally, they use fire extinguishers on the flames. The Russian module is equipped with a foam extinguisher and the others use CO2 units. (Image credit: Warner Brothers)