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Fire on a spacecraft can be catastrophic. It can spread quickly in a confined space, and for trapped astronauts, there may be no escape. It’s fading in time now, but Apollo 1, which was to be the first crewed Apollo mission, never got off the ground because of a fire that killed the crew. There’ve been other dangerous spacecraft fires too, like the one onboard the Russian Mir space station in 1997.

In an effort to understand how fire behaves in spacecraft, NASA began its Saffire (Spacecraft Fire Safety Experiment) in 2016. Saffire was an eight-year, six-mission effort to study how fire behaves in space. The final Saffire test was completed on January 9th.

Fire behaviour in buildings here on Earth is well-studied and well-understood. Fire prevention and suppression are important components in building design. It makes sense to bring that same level of understanding to space travel and even to surpass it.

“How big a fire does it take for things to get bad for a crew?” asked Dr. David Urban, Saffire principal investigator at NASA’s Glenn Research Centre. “This kind of work is done for every other inhabited structure here on Earth – buildings, planes, trains, automobiles, mines, submarines, ships – but we hadn’t done this research for spacecraft until Saffire.”

NASA has conducted six experiments under Saffire, and each one was conducted in an uncrewed Cygnus cargo vehicle after it completed its supply mission to the ISS. The vehicles are sent into the atmosphere to burn up, and the experiments are run prior to the vehicle’s destruction. Saffire 1 ran in 2016 inside an avionics bay with an airflow duct. The bay contained a cotton and fibreglass burn blend, which was ignited remotely with a hot wire.

Subsequent Saffire experiments tested how different materials burned, including the fire-resistant fabric Nomex and even acrylic spacecraft windows. Tests also included varied oxygen flows, different atmospheric pressures, and different oxygen levels. Each Saffire test generated important data on how fire behaves inside spacecraft.

The final segment of the Saffire program, Saffire-VI, was conducted on January 9th, 2024, prior to the uncrewed Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft carrying the experiment burning up during re-entry. Saffire-VI was different than its predecessors in the program because the experiment had higher oxygen content and lower pressure similar to actual conditions in spacecraft.

“The Saffire flow unit is a wind tunnel,” said Dr. Gary Ruff, Saffire project manager at NASA’s Glenn Research Center. “We’re pushing air through it. Once test conditions are set, we run an electrical current through a thin wire, and the materials ignite.”

Fire in a confined environment does more than just damage things and burn people. It also generates harmful combustion by-products. Alongside the predictable carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, a fire onboard a spacecraft can generate trace amounts of hydrogen fluoride, hydrogen chloride, and hydrogen cyanide. Hydrogen fluoride is a very toxic chemical, and exposure requires immediate medical attention. Hydrogen chloride is an irritant that can become fatal, and hydrogen cyanide can damage the brain, heart, and lungs and can also be fatal. A piece of equipment called the Combustion Product Monitor (CPM) instrument uses laser spectroscopy to analyze the contents of the smoke and detect these hazardous chemicals.

The Combustion Product Monitor uses laser spectroscopy to detect hazardous chemicals created by fire. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Microdevices Laboratory.
The Combustion Product Monitor uses laser spectroscopy to detect hazardous chemicals created by fire. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Microdevices Laboratory.

Cameras inside the experiment record what happens, while other instruments outside collect data. After the experiments collect their data, it’s downloaded before the Cygnus vehicle is sent plummeting toward its atmospheric destruction. By altering
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The Ingenuity Team Downloads the Final Data from the Mars Helicopter. The Mission is Over

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I really can’t believe that the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars took its maiden voyage in April 2021. On the 16th April 2024, engineers at NASA have received the final batch of data from the craft which marks the final task of the team. Ingenuity’s work is not over though as it will remain on the surface collecting data. For the engineers at NASA, they have their sights set on Dragonfly, a new helicopter destined for Titan.

When Ingenuity took off on its maiden voyage it became the first powered craft to achieve flight on an alien world. It has completed 128.8 minutes of flight covering 17 kilometres. It has extra large rotor blades to achieve lift in the thin martian atmosphere and has performed excellently providing guidance and targets for the Perseverance Rover to study close up. 

Ingenuity stood on the surface fo Mars
Ingenuity helicopter

It’s surprising to think that Ingenuity was only ever designed to be a short-lived demonstration mission. Over a period of 30 days, Ingenuity was to perform five experimental test flights and operate over three years. Unfortunately a rather hard landing damaged its rotor blades rendering it unable to fly again. It’s now sat at Airfield Chi in the now named “Valinor Hills” area of Mars. The team gave the region the nickname as a homage to the final residence of the immortals in Lord of the Rings. 

With Ingenuity now unable to fly the team had sent a software update to direct it to continue to collect data even if the Rover is unavailable. This will mean that it will wake each morning, test the (non-flight) systems are operational, take a colour image of the surface and record the temperature. The team believe such long term data could help to inform martian weather studies and help future explorers. This is a long term purpose for Ingenuity and it has the capability to store data for 20 years! If system or battery failure occurs the data will still be securely stored. The only way to retrieve the data though, will be through another autonomous craft or a human visitor of the future.

The success of Ingenuity paved the way for a new era of planetary exploration. Next up is Dragonfly, a mission to Saturn’s moon Titan. Costing a total of $3.35 billion across its entire lifecycle it will become the fourth mission in NASA’s New Frontiers Program. The probe will be managed by the Marshall Space Flight Centre but behind them is an international team from many different organisations including but not limited to Goddard Space Flight Centre in Maryland; Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania; Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales in Paris; the German Aerospace Centre in Cologne, Germany; and JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) in Tokyo.

Artist’s concept of Dragonfly soaring over the dunes of Saturn’s moon Titan.
Artist’s concept of Dragonfly soaring over the dunes of Saturn’s moon Titan.
Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben

Dragonfly is slated to arrive in 2034. It’s mission will be to visit multiple locations, sampling the minerals to search for prebiotic chemical processes. It will also look for chemical signatures that indicate water-based and/or hydrocarbon-based life. Unlike Ingenuity, its rotors are similar size to those you would find on a drone on Earth. The
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5 Reasons You Must Backpack in the Grand Canyon

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By Michael Lanza

The Grand Canyon’s appeal to backpackers may seem elusive. It’s hard, it’s dry, it’s often quite hot with little respite from the blazing sun. But while those aspects of hiking there are rarely out of mind, when I recall backpacking in the canyon, I conjure mental images of waterfalls, creeks, and intimate side canyons sheltering perennial streams that nurture lush oases in the desert. I think of wildflowers carpeting the ground for as far as the eye can see. I recall campsites on beaches by the Colorado River and on promontories overlooking a wide expanse of the canyon.

And, of course, I picture the endless vistas stretching for miles in every direction, where impossibly immense stone towers loom thousands of feet above an unfathomably vertiginous and complex landscape.

After several backpacking trips in the Big Ditch, I find that the more I go there, the more I need to go back again. This place really hooks you (see reason no. 5, below). And my perspective is shaped by more than three decades of backpacking all over the United States, including formerly as the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine for 10 years and even longer running this blog. I’ve taken many of the best multi-day hikes out there—some of them multiple times.

Tet19 047 Me on Teton Crest Trail copy cropped 21
Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-guides to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

A backpacker on the Tonto Trail on the Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop.
” data-image-caption=”David Ports backpacking the Tonto Trail on the Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop.
” data-medium-file=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/06235057/Gran6-137-Ports-Tonto-Trail-Royal-Arch-Loop-Grand-Canyon-copy.jpg?fit=300%2C200&ssl=1″ data-large-file=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/06235057/Gran6-137-Ports-Tonto-Trail-Royal-Arch-Loop-Grand-Canyon-copy.jpg?fit=900%2C600&ssl=1″ src=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/06235057/Gran6-137-Ports-Tonto-Trail-Royal-Arch-Loop-Grand-Canyon-copy-1024×683.jpg?resize=900%2C600&ssl=1″ alt=”A backpacker on the Tonto Trail on the Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop.” class=”wp-image-23908″ srcset=”https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/06235057/Gran6-137-Ports-Tonto-Trail-Royal-Arch-Loop-Grand-Canyon-copy.jpg 1024w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/06235057/Gran6-137-Ports-Tonto-Trail-Royal-Arch-Loop-Grand-Canyon-copy.jpg 300w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/06235057/Gran6-137-Ports-Tonto-Trail-Royal-Arch-Loop-Grand-Canyon-copy.jpg 768w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/06235057/Gran6-137-Ports-Tonto-Trail-Royal-Arch-Loop-Grand-Canyon-copy.jpg 1080w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/06235057/Gran6-137-Ports-Tonto-Trail-Royal-Arch-Loop-Grand-Canyon-copy.jpg 200w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/06235057/Gran6-137-Ports-Tonto-Trail-Royal-Arch-Loop-Grand-Canyon-copy.jpg 670w, https://tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/06235057/Gran6-137-Ports-Tonto-Trail-Royal-Arch-Loop-Grand-Canyon-copy.jpg 1200w” sizes=”(max-width: 900px) 100vw, 900px” data-recalc-dims=”1″ />David Ports backpacking the Tonto Trail on the Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop. Click photo to read about that trip.

See my lists of “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips,” “The 10 Best National Park Backpacking Trips,” and “The

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8 Epic Grand Canyon Backpacking Trips You Must Do

Tet19 047 Me on Teton Crest Trail copy cropped 18

By Michael Lanza

This is, in a way, a story about addiction. Or a love affair. Or both. Those metaphors best describe how the Grand Canyon constantly lures me back when I’m thinking about spring and fall hiking and backpacking trips.

It is that rare kind of natural environment that exists on a scale of its own, like Alaska or the Himalaya. There’s something soul-stirring and hypnotic about its infinite vistas, the deceptive immensity of the canyon walls and stone towers, and the way the foreground and background continually expand and shrink as you ascend and descend elevation gradients of a vertical mile or more—all of which validates enduring the wilting heat and trails that sometimes seem better suited to rattlesnakes and scorpions than bipedal primates.

For backpackers seeking adventure, challenge, and incomparable natural beauty, the canyon stands alone.

This story will show you, in words and photos, why one or more of these Big Ditch backpacking trips deserves top priority as you’re planning your next trip. I think you will quickly understand why the Grand Canyon has increasingly become one of my favorite places over more than three decades (and counting) of backpacking, including the 10 years I spent as a longtime field editor for Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.

Tet19 047 Me on Teton Crest Trail copy cropped 19
Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-guides to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

A backpacker at Ooh-Ah Point on the South Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon.
” data-image-caption=”Todd Arndt at Ooh-Ah Point on the South Kaibab Trail. Click on the photo to see my e-book “The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon.”
” data-medium-file=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/06231753/Gran8-003-Todd-Arndt-at-Ooh-Ah-Point-South-Kaibab-Trail-Grand-Canyon..jpg?fit=300%2C200&ssl=1″ data-large-file=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/06231753/Gran8-003-Todd-Arndt-at-Ooh-Ah-Point-South-Kaibab-Trail-Grand-Canyon..jpg?fit=900%2C600&ssl=1″ src=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/06231753/Gran8-003-Todd-Arndt-at-Ooh-Ah-Point-South-Kaibab-Trail-Grand-Canyon..jpg?resize=900%2C600&ssl=1″ alt=”A backpacker at Ooh-Ah Point on the South Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon.” class=”wp-image-36039″ srcset=”https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/06231753/Gran8-003-Todd-Arndt-at-Ooh-Ah-Point-South-Kaibab-Trail-Grand-Canyon..jpg?resize=900%2C600&ssl=1 1200w, https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/06231753/Gran8-003-Todd-Arndt-at-Ooh-Ah-Point-South-Kaibab-Trail-Grand-Canyon..jpg?resize=900%2C600&ssl=1 300w, https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/06231753/Gran8-003-Todd-Arndt-at-Ooh-Ah-Point-South-Kaibab-Trail-Grand-Canyon..jpg?resize=900%2C600&ssl=1 768w, https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/06231753/Gran8-003-Todd-Arndt-at-Ooh-Ah-Point-South-Kaibab-Trail-Grand-Canyon..jpg?resize=900%2C600&ssl=1 1024w, https://i0.wp.com/tbo-media.sfo2.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/06231753/Gran8-003-Todd-Arndt-at-Ooh-Ah-Point-South-Kaibab-Trail-Grand-Canyon..jpg?resize=900%2C600&ssl=1 1080w” sizes=”(max-width: 900px) 100vw, 900px” data-recalc-dims=”1″ />Todd Arndt at Ooh-Ah Point on the South Kaibab Trail. Click on the photo to see my e-book “The Best Backpacking Trip in the Grand Canyon.”

And the time to start planning your
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