In a challenge to generally accepted safety protocols, Chinese astronauts were broadcast live conducting an open-flame experiment aboard the country’s Tiangong space station.
Astronauts Gui Haichao and Zhu Yangzhu can be seen in the video lighting a candle during a live lecture, the fourth module of the “Tiangong classroom” on the space station, showing viewers that the flames appear to be almost spherical when lit in the environment microgravity of low Earth orbit.
Flames on Earth typically appear teardrop-shaped thanks to a buoyancy-based convection, according to a Space.com report, with warm air rising and cold air falling near the flame. In the low-Earth orbit environment in which astronauts operate, this convection current is weaker than on Earth and causes the flame to spread out in all directions, giving it the spherical appearance seen in the video.
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The candle experiment is unlikely to be repeated on the International Space Station, the Space.com report notes, thanks to strict fire safety rules that limit fires to specially designed racks that help contain flames. These rules were adopted in response to a fire that occurred on the Russian space station Mir in 1997.
According to a NASA summary of the 1997 incident, a fire that started in an oxygen production system on Mir lasted several minutes, cutting the astronauts from one of the space station’s escape vehicles and filling the units with smoke.
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Mir’s cramped quarters made the situation even more difficult, with six astronauts trying to navigate the tight confines and work together to put out the fire.
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These astronauts were eventually able to extinguish the fire, while the space station’s life support system cleared the station of any lingering toxic smoke over the next few hours. While the Mir crew members suffered no permanent damage from the fire, the incident changed the way space agencies approached fire safety on the International Space Station.