New Paper Evaluates Space Station Fire Detector Performance

The paper explains that not all of the particles were consistently detected, so the authors recommend that the next generation of spacecraft fire detectors must be improved and tested against smoke from relevant space materials.

A new paper published in Fire Safety Journal by a team of NASA and NIST researchers describes their evaluation of smoke particles produced by five materials commonly used aboard crewed spacecraft and how well they can be detected by two traditional systems. A NIST news release on May 1 describes a tense moment in February 1997 aboard the Russian space station Mir, when its crew -- including U.S. astronaut Jerry Linenger -- had to extinguish a burning lithium-perchlorate canister that was designed to generate oxygen via a chemical reaction. "Although the fire was quickly subdued, a dense, life-threatening smoke—different in form and movement from its gravity bound counterpart on Earth—rapidly filled the station. Being confined in a limited area 360 kilometers (224 miles) above the nearest fire brigade made the situation even more precarious," the release states.

NASA has teamed with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) since 2002 to study the behavior of smoke in microgravity. The paper explains that not all of the particles were consistently detected, so the authors recommend that the next generation of spacecraft fire detectors must be improved and tested against smoke from relevant space materials.

They tested smoke particles from material used in experiments aboard the International Space Station, including cotton fiber, Kapton (a polymer for thermal insulation), silicone rubber (for seals and gaskets), Teflon (for insulating wires), and Pyrell (polyurethane foam for packing). While the large particles produced by overheating the cellulose, silicone, and Pyrell samples were easily picked up by the light-scattering photoelectric ISS detector, it frequently could not detect the smaller smoke particles from Teflon and Kapton.

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