Experimenting with fireballs in space

It turns out burning fuel in space is much different than on Earth -- think floating fireballs that give off formaldehyde.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
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Eric Mack
2 min read

Flames in space form actual fireballs. Screenshot by Eric Mack/CNET

Here on planet Earth we're used to flames -- whether from a candle or campfire -- reaching upward to the sky with slender limbs hungry for oxygen and driven by rising hot air. But in space, sans our planet's strong gravitational pull, flames are more likely to take the shape of eerie fireballs.

Within the flame of a regular candle wick, there's quite a bit going on. As the video below released this week by NASA explains, molecules from the wick are being cracked apart and vaporized by the flame, then combined with oxygen to produce light, heat, carbon dioxide, and water, as well as soot.

In recent years we've become quite familiar with how flames can extend and expand quickly in their greedy quest for more fuel and oxygen; witness countless western wildfires of the past decade. But researchers aboard the International Space Station have observed that flames in microgravity behave much differently, staying in a small spherical shape and letting oxygen molecules come to them.

They also discovered something very strange while conducting experiments on how to put out fires in their environment. Small droplets of a fuel called heptane were set aflame inside a test chamber. The flames quickly went out, but surprisingly the droplets continued to burn without the presence of flames.

It could be that flames are actually present, but just too faint to see, something NASA refers to as "cool flames."

Cool flames can burn at temperatures as low as 400 degrees Fahrenheit, but they behave very differently from the flames we're used to. For starters, they don't produce the carbon dioxide we're used to getting from fires. Instead they give off carbon monoxide and formaldehyde. Fortunately, cool flames typically can't exist on earth for more than a few fractions of a second, whereas they can persist on the International Space Station for up to a minute.

However, NASA says these insights could have practical implications on our planet, such as better fuel efficiency.

So get ready for the next generation of vehicles -- new, improved, and with more space fireballs! Watch the video below for a more eloquent explanation of the science and let us know what potential you see in formaldehyde-expelling balls of fire in the comments.