The results are pretty bonkers. In space, a flame is shaped like a sphere instead of a teardrop, and it doesn’t flicker. It just hovers, a small, ghostly orb, until it goes out. Such orbs are called “flame balls,” a term that is both extremely accurate and delightfully deranged. “It’s kind of mesmerizing to see this burning without gravity present,” Ferkul said.
Read: Why so much is ‘bonkers’ right now
Ferkul and his fellow researchers have devised a new fiery experiment for astronauts. The experiment, which was scheduled to launch to the ISS on a resupply mission today, will study how fire spreads in small, confined spaces. A blaze inside a building or a spaceship behaves differently than it does in open spaces, and the researchers hope this work could inspire better infrastructure design and fire-safety codes.
Studying fire in space is actually easier than doing it on Earth. Fire is complicated here. A single candle flame contains thousands of chemical reactions. The heat of the flame vaporizes wax and breaks down its molecules into carbon and hydrogen, which combine with oxygen in the air to produce light, heat, carbon dioxide, and water vapor. As hot air rises to the top, fresh, cooler air is drawn in at the bottom, providing fuel for the flame. This flow molds the flame into a teardrop and makes it flicker.
On Earth, the flickering hides the subtle dynamics of fire. In space, this flow doesn’t exist. Air travels in all directions, and the flame rounds out. Without interference from gravity, scientists can get a better look.
“Flame balls are to combustion scientists what fruit flies are to geneticists,” Paul Ronney, a combustion researcher, once said. “It’s not that we want more fruit flies, or flame balls, but they provide a simple model for testing hypotheses and checking computer models.”
Read: An alarming discovery in an astronaut’s bloodstream
Ronney first observed the strange phenomenon in the 1980s. The researcher dropped a can of burning hydrogen down a shaft designed to simulate the weightlessness of microgravity and filmed what happened. When he saw the footage, “I thought I had done something wrong,” he said. “It was ridiculous. No one had ever seen anything like it.”
The flames cracked into tiny floating balls. Computer analyses had predicted flames would be small and only last a few minutes. Ignited, the weightless flames produced a tiny fraction of the thermal power of a birthday candle. But they turned out to be two to three times bigger than predicted, and burned for longer, only dying out when the system automatically extinguished them. One of the most destructive forces on the planet appeared delicate, suspended in weightlessness.
Trapped in a space station, though, free-floating fire will still spark fear. In 1997, a faulty oxygen canister on a Russian space station erupted into flames. Dense smoke filled the spacecraft. “My natural reaction was to want to open a window,” Aleksandr Lazutkin, a Russian cosmonaut, recalled later. “And then, I was truly afraid for the first time. You can’t escape the smoke. You can’t just open a window to ventilate the room.” The crew—four Russians, one American, and one German—rushed to put on oxygen masks and deploy their fire extinguishers, spraying the blaze with foam and water. The fire eventually exhausted itself. The crew, shaken but unharmed, resumed their mission.