Research

Flames in Space

The jellyfish-like light show in the animations above shows the life and death of a flame in microgravity. The work is part of the Flame Extinguishment Experiment 2 (FLEX-2) currently flying aboard the International Space Station. When ignited, the fuel droplet creates a blue spherical shell of flame about 15 mm in diameter. The spherical shape is typical of flames in microgravity; on Earth, flames are shaped like teardrops due to the effects of buoyancy, which exists only in a gravitational field. The bright yellow spots and streaks that appear after ignition are soot, which consists mainly of hot-burning carbon. The uneven distribution of soot is what causes the pulsating bursts seen in the middle animation. When soot products drift back onto the fuel droplet, it causes uneven burning and flame pulses. The final burst of flame in the last animation is the soot igniting and extinguishing the flame. Fires are a major hazard in microgravity, where oxygen supplies are limited and evacuating is not always an option. Scientists hope that experiments like FLEX-2 will shed light on how fires spread and can be fought aboard spacecraft. For more, check out NASA’s ScienceCast on microgravity flames. (Image credits: NASA, source video; submitted by jshoer)

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