Evaluation of Spacecraft Smoke Detector Performance in the Low-Gravity Environment

Fire Saf J. 2018:98:10.1016/j.firesaf.2018.04.004. doi: 10.1016/j.firesaf.2018.04.004.


In the interest of fire prevention, most materials used in the interior construction of manned spacecraft are non-flammable, however, they do produce smoke when overheated. Spacecraft smoke detectors will ideally detect smoke generated by oxidative pyrolysis (such as smoldering) in order to allow the maximum time for the crew to respond before a larger flaming fire develops. An experiment on the International Space Station (ISS) characterized smoke from overheating common spacecraft materials. The following parameters were controlled: heating temperature, air flow past the samples and duration of aging. Two different spacecraft smoke detectors were included in the instrumentation and their performance with different smoke types has been evaluated. Additional equipment in the experiment included a thermal precipitator to sample particles for microscopic analysis upon return to Earth, and three commercial-off-the-shelf real-time instruments to measure particle mass and number concentration, and an ionization detector calibrated to estimate the first moment of the size distribution. Results from the ISS experiment show that smoke particles vary in morphology and average diameter, however, they are not significantly different from smoke particles generated in equivalent experiments performed in normal gravity. The two spacecraft smoke detectors did not successfully detect every type of smoke, which demonstrates that the next generation of spacecraft fire detectors must be improved and tested against smoke from relevant space materials.

Keywords: Fire Detector; Smoke; microgravity.