A unique environment in which flame spreading, a phenomenon of fundamental, scientific interest, has importance to fire safety is that of spacecraft in which the gravitational acceleration is low compared with that of the Earth, i.e., microgravity. Experiments aboard eight Space Shuttle missions between October 1990 and February 1995 were conducted using the Solid Surface Combustion Experiment (SSCE) payload apparatus in an effort to determine the mechanisms of gas-phase flame spread over solid fuel surfaces in the absence of any buoyancy induced or externally imposed oxidizer flow. The overall SSCE effort began in December of 1984.
The SSCE apparatus consists of a sealed container, approximately 0.039 m3, that is filled with a specified O2/N2 mixture at a prescribed pressure. Five of the experiments used a thin cellulosic fuel, ashless filter paper, 3 cm wide by 20 cm long, 0.00825 cm half-thickness, ignited in five different ambient conditions. Three of the experiments, the most recent, used thick polymethylmethacrylate (PMMA) samples 0.635 cm wide by 2 cm long, 0.32 cm half-thickness. Three experiments, STS 41, 40 and 43, were designed to evaluate the effect of ambient pressure on flame spread over the thin cellulosic fuel while flights STS 50 and 47 were at the same pressure as two of the earlier flights but at a lower oxygen concentration in order to evaluate the effect of ambient oxygen level on the flame spread process at microgravity. For the PMMA flights, two experiments, STS 54 and 63, were at the same pressure but different oxygen concentrations while STS 64 was at the same oxygen concentration as STS 63 but at a higher pressure.
Two orthogonal views of the experiments were recorded on 16 mm cine-cameras operating at 24 frames/s. In addition to filmed images of the side view of the flames and surface view of the burning samples, solid-and gas-phase temperature were recorded using thermocouples. The experiment is battery powered and follows an automated sequence upon activation by the Shuttle Crew.
In this study we separate the SSCE data into two groups according to the fuel type: I) thin cellulose, and ii) thick PMMA. The experimental spread rates are compared with prediction from a number of models in an effort to uncover the important physics that characterize microgravity flame spread. Both steady and unsteady solutions are employed to explore the flame evolution, especially for thick fuels. Finally, the flame structure in downward spread is compared with the microgravity flame structure and modeling results to delineate the difference between the two configurations and influence of normal gravity.
Altenkirch, R.A., Bundy, M., West, J., Thomas, P.C., Bhattacharjee, S., Tang, L., Sacksteder, K.R., Solid Surface Combustion Experiment Flame Spread in a Quiescent, Microgravity Environment: Implications of Spread Rate and Flame Structure, 3rd International Microgravity Combustion Workshop, NASA Lewis Research, Cleveland, OH, CP 10174, pp. 11-17, April 11, 1995.