On simulating concurrent flame spread in reduced gravity by reducing ambient pressure

Maria Thomsen, Carlos Fernandez-Pello, David L. Urban, Gary A. Ruff, Sandra L. Olson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


The flammability of combustible materials in spacecraft environments is of importance for fire safety applications because the environmental conditions can greatly differ from those on earth, and a fire in a spacecraft could be catastrophic. Moreover, experimental testing in spacecraft environments can be difficult and expensive, so using ground-based tests to inform microgravity tests is vital. Reducing buoyancy effects by decreasing ambient pressure is a possible approach to simulate a spacecraft environment on earth. The objective of this work is to study the effect of pressure on material flammability, and by comparison with microgravity data, determine the extent to which reducing pressure can be used to simulate reduced gravity. Specifically, this work studies the effect of pressure and microgravity on upward/concurrent flame spread rates and flame appearance of a burning thin composite fabric made of 75% cotton and 25% fiberglass (Sibal). Experiments in normal gravity were conducted using pressures ranging between 100 and 30 kPa and a forced flow velocity of 20 cm/s. Microgravity experiments were conducted during NASA's Spacecraft Fire Experiment (Saffire), on board of the Orbital Corporation Cygnus spacecraft at 100 kPa and an air flow velocity of 20 cm/s. Results show that reductions of ambient pressure slow the flame spread over the fabric. As pressure is reduced, flame intensity is also reduced. Comparison with the concurrent flame spread rates in microgravity show that similar flame spread rates are obtained at around 30 kPa. The normal gravity and microgravity data is correlated in terms of a mixed convection non-dimensional parameter that describes the heat transferred from the flame to the solid surface. The correlation provides information about the similitudes of the flame spread process in variable pressure and reduced gravity environments, providing guidance for potential on-earth testing for fire safety design in spacecraft and space habitats.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3793-3800
Number of pages8
JournalProceedings of the Combustion Institute
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2019


  • Environmental conditions
  • Flame spread rate
  • Low pressure
  • Microgravity


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