back to article International Space Station celebrates 18th birthday in true style – by setting trash on fire

On Sunday, the International Space Station turned 18, a birthday many non-US teenagers around the world celebrate with a drunken binge and a colossal hangover. Instead, the station celebrated with a new arrival and by firing up an unusual birthday candle. On November 20, 1998 the very first module of the ISS, renamed Zarya …

  1. redpawn Silver badge

    Yes Burn the Trash

    Seems like a resupply Soyuz with return trash would be a good model to experiment on just before return to Earth. With many of the same materials as the ISS the fire would be quite authentic. Don't just burn a small test item. Burn it all while taking proper measurements of course. Would make for good ratings too.

    1. cray74

      Re: Yes Burn the Trash

      The original idea for the Saffire experiment was to light off an uncontrolled garbage fire in the Cygnus, but after looking at the set-up it was realized there was no way to get good, quantified data from the experiment. So, first, they're trying these boxes to figure out how individual materials respond.

      Having been on the wrong end of experiments that juggled too many variables at once, I approve of the methodical Saffire approach. The data won't get lost in the noise if you start small.

      There are always more cargo flights - Soyuz, Cygnus, Dragon. Once you have the basics worked out, then try a bigger fire.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Yes Burn the Trash

        Next: Testing what happens if there are big feral animals in the vents.

        1. macjules Silver badge

          Re: Yes Burn the Trash

          Let alone if you need to clear a few tribbles out from the vents.

      2. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

        Re: Yes Burn the Trash

        Theres already been a fire on the Cygnus

      3. Stevie Silver badge

        Re: Yes Burn the Trash

        "Having been on the wrong end of experiments that juggled too many variables at once, I approve of the methodical Saffire approach. The data won't get lost in the noise if you start small."

        But all great science advancements start with an explosion from the inconvenient disintegrating magnets of the HHC to the seminal "Me throw geode in fire and see what happens" experiment by that great Neanderthal Father of Science (and inventor of the silent mammoth whistle) Gak Eisenberg.

        Why, I've even done a little to advance the field myself.

  2. ecofeco Silver badge

    3 more years

    3 more years and it can finally go to the pub and have its first beer!

    1. fatbuddha

      Re: 3 more years

      As the 1st stages of ISS were launched from Russia i would suggest it can go to the pub today - legal drinking age in Russia is 18 (like most civilised countries ;-) )

      1. Chemist

        Re: 3 more years

        "legal drinking age in Russia is 18"

        AFAIK ((long past the age) legal age in Switzerland , for beer, is 16 - maybe depends on the Kanton.

    2. lglethal Silver badge

      Re: 3 more years

      Hey Ecofeco,

      Ever considered the irony that you can legally own a gun at 14 in the US, but cant drink until 21? Personally, I prefer the idea of letting people get used to being drunk before I let them become proficient at firearms... :P

    3. DropBear Silver badge

      Re: 3 more years

      Not to mention there are probably more unicorns per square meter in most places than people who didn't drink themselves silly any number of times by the time they're 18...

  3. Lee D Silver badge

    Anybody else appreciate the irony that it's the 21st century, we've had people living on a space station for nearly two decades, and our greatest fear and unknown is still fire?

    1. Martin Summers Silver badge
    2. Tom Paine Silver badge

      Warren Ellis had a few interesting remarks on fire in space on the first of his very splendid and worthwhile Spektrmodule podcasts (98% of which is haunty / sleepy / ambienty music): .


      1. Little Mouse

        <Comment removed. @Red Bren, You beat me to it...>

    3. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      our greatest fear and unknown is still fire?

      The fact that one is living inside an environment containing a fierce oxydizer in gaseous form is not often appreciated!

    4. DropBear Silver badge

      The irony that I appreciate more is that of being most afraid of fire in places where naively they are supposed to be trivial to put out - at sea (water aplenty) and in space (vacuum doesn't burn - flee, close off and vent). I'm obviously aware why that is in fact the case, but I think it's still rather ironic...

  4. Andy The Hat Silver badge

    Fibreglass and cotton ...

    so it won't be so much of a fire, more of a smoulder.

    Well it would be on Earth but I guess in space no one can predict how you'll burn ...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Fibreglass and cotton ...

      "Fibreglass and cotton"

      Gives a whole new meaning to "I'll slip into something hot"

    2. Richard 12 Silver badge

      Re: Fibreglass and cotton ...

      It's usually smoke that kills, so smouldering is still incredibly dangerous if you don't know how to reliably put it out.

      Especially in a sealed environment like a space capsule or submarine.

      1. Lee D Silver badge

        Re: Fibreglass and cotton ...

        Just open the doors and vent it into space. Fire out, smoke gone, problem solved... ;-)

        I mean... you hope the crew managed to get somewhere else first, but they're expendable compared to a multi-billion dollar space station.

        1. theModge

          Re: Fibreglass and cotton ...

          I mean... you hope the crew managed to get somewhere else first, but they're expendable compared to a multi-billion dollar space station.

          Investing thing on the the museum warship in London; the crew in the magazine (shell storage) had to get out really very quickly indeed (up a vertical ladder) to avoid being drowned by the fire-suppression system (a pipe, going to the sea). To add a frisson of excitement to the proceedings in order as to avoid flooding the ship the escape hatch had to be locked fairly shortly after the water was turned on, thus further reducing their escape time.

          1. Jonathan Richards 1

            Re: Fibreglass and cotton ...

            > the crew in the magazine (shell storage) had to get out really very quickly indeed (up a vertical ladder) to avoid being drowned by the fire-suppression system

            I believe the Royal Navy in WW2 didn't expect the magazine crews to be able to evacuate in case of a fire: they were locked into the magazine, and if it needed to be flooded then they would drown. As evidence, here is a tiny extract from a memoir by S. L. Bell, BEM, whose duty station was the 'A' turret shell room of HMS Exeter at the Battle of the River Plate:

            ... we all set about our work sending up prepared shells to A turret, when the ship seemed to stagger and shudder, we then noticed smoke coming down the voice pipe, and the turret wouldn't respond to calls; after a brief moment the person in charge of the shell room told the crew members there to get up top to see if there was anything that could be done to assist getting the gun back into action, as we left the shell room I asked about the personnel below in the magazine, and the PIC told me to spin the hatch to let them out and tell them what was happening, as they were locked down in the magazine in case the need to flood ever occurred.

            'A' turret had been struck by a shell from Panzerschiffe Admiral Graf von Spee, but precautions against flash igniting the charges in the magazines meant that Exeter survived (just) both this hit, and many others.

      2. Dale 3

        It's usually smoke that kills

        Indeed. Our fire trainer always refers to it as toxic fumes rather than smoke, because people generally are conditioned not to worry so much about smoke until they also see flames, but if they think the smoke is toxic (which it is) then that bothers them greatly enough to take action sooner.

  5. TheProf


    I'd like to offer my congratulations to Peggy Whitson. She's doing something right.

  6. Red Bren

    Islands in the sky

    Arthur C Clarke touched on this subject. IIRC someone lit a candle, which briefly burned with a spherical flame then went out. They had to keep the candle moving to sustain the flame as heat can't rise in a weightless environment.

  7. Timbo

    It still amazes me that it can take nearly 2 days to fly, in a space rocket, up into space approx 250 miles.

    Of course the ISS is in orbit, travelling at a good few thousand miles an hour so the Soyuz takes time to get up to speed and then catch up.

    But I've seen that the Russians have previously taken a "quicker" route in the recent I wonder why they don't do that more often?

    Plus "2 days" in a cramped Soyuz, with little space (sic) to move around inside? wonders about DVT plus how do they manage "toilet breaks" with a woman on board? Maybe a few diapers placed inside the space suits?

    1. BoldMan

      Well they aren't travelling JUST 250 miles are they - at 17,000 miles an hour, there is a LOT of catching up to do - an Earth orbit every 92 minutes, they are going to need quite a few orbits to catch up and that takes time without making the occupants suffer multi-G accelerations for long periods..

      1. DropBear Silver badge

        "Well they aren't travelling JUST 250 miles are they - at 17,000 miles an hour, there is a LOT of catching up to do"

        Actually, I'm a bit puzzled myself - the actual burn only takes a few minutes, the rest is coasting; you get up there in a mere few minutes, so why can't one, at least in theory, meet the ISS as soon as one got up there? Orbiting at 92 minutes, that sounds like a helluva lot of circling for no good reason...

        1. cray74

          Actually, I'm a bit puzzled myself - the actual burn only takes a few minutes, the rest is coasting; you get up there in a mere few minutes, so why can't one, at least in theory, meet the ISS as soon as one got up there?

          There's several reasons for it, even if the launch puts the visiting capsule "close" to the station - and see Andrew Newstead's comments about initial spacing.

          First, both objects are moving at nearly identical velocities. The usual technique is for the visiting ship to take a lower orbit and thus have a mildly higher velocity, but the difference in velocities between (say) 250 miles altitude and 200 miles altitude isn't large (17,160mph vs 17,262mph). Shifting your orbit to have a station-intercepting apogee will necessarily causes you to slow down as you climb.

          Second, you don't want the capsule blazing toward the station at several hundred miles per hour relative velocity. Mir suffered a lot of damage from a 5mph collision, and the "$100 billion" on the ISS price tag means you can afford to be cautious.

          Hence even Soyuz expedited docking flights take 6 hours to close with the ISS. Overall, normal intercept flights require three phasing burns through a couple of traffic control "gateways" to gradually eliminate uncertainty (per the second answer in this link) in the flight path.

          Additionally, the two-day interception was favored because it gave the passengers and crew time to acclimate to space.

          PS: Addressing Timbo's flight about a cramped module and a female occupant, note that the Soyuz does have the utility (or "orbital") module that provides some elbowroom. This includes un-described "sanitation facilities," the loss of which was problematic for the September 1988 Soyuz TM-5 flight. They're not stuck in the seats for days at a time, and they do have a hatch that can be closed to separate the orbital and descent modules so a female occupant can have a bit of privacy. On the other hand, the combined descent/orbital module volume has been described as akin to a VW Bug or Smart Car. :)

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "so the Soyuz takes time to get up to speed and then catch up."

      Well it has to get up to speed pretty damn quick to get & stay in orbit - so that isn't the problem !

    3. sundog

      Lets see you drive blindfolded, at 100mph, across the desert, in a flatbed truck, for three days to catch a parachutist (also blindfolded) on the center of an X after six vodka martinis per hour for three days.

      Orbital mechanics is a particularly nasty branch of math, and it's one of those things that rewards pre-planning vs brute force. Try to log in too many times, you get locked out. Try to brute force a launch and orbit, and you die a firey, incandescent death.

      Would you rather crap yourself, and arrive safely to duck to the washroom in relative shame (they've all been there, done that), or rush the job and say into the mike, 'Oops, we smashed into you, now we all die..."

      Shit myself and get there, or rush and die? I'd rather be shitted than dead. Shit wipes up, death.... not so much.

      Mine's the one with the Depends in the pocket.

      1. Captain DaFt

        "Orbital mechanics is a particularly nasty branch of math"

        Oof! No kidding. Just a simple one-tangent transfer orbit formula set as an example:

        Calculate the eccentricity of the transfer orbit:

        et = pt(DU) / r1(DU) - 1 (for an outbound transfer)

        et = 1 - pt(DU) / r2(DU) (for an inbound transfer)

        Calculate the semi-major axis of the transfer orbit:

        at(DU) = r1(DU) / (1 - et) (for an outbound transfer)

        at(DU) = r2(DU) / (1 + et) (for an inbound transfer)

        Calculate the spacecraft's initial velocity (which is the same as the orbital velocity of its initial orbit):

        vorb1(DU/TU) = Sqrt[mu(DU^3/TU^2) / r1(DU)]

        Calculate the velocity of the transfer orbit at insertion:

        v1(DU/TU) = Sqrt[mu(DU^3/TU^2) * (2 / r1(DU) - 1 / at(DU))]

        Calculate the insertion burn:

        DeltaV1(DU/TU) = v1(DU/TU) - vorb1(DU/TU)

        Calculate the orbital velocity of the destination orbit:

        vorb2(DU/TU) = Sqrt[mu(DU^3/TU^2) / r2(DU)]

        Calculate the velocity of the transfer orbit at the destination:

        v2(DU/TU) = Sqrt[mu(DU^3/TU^2) * (2 / r2(DU) - 1 / at(DU))]

        Calculate the arrival burn:

        DeltaV2(DU/TU)^2 = v2(DU/TU)^2 + vorb2(DU/TU)^2 - 2 * vorb2(DU/TU) * Sqrt[mu(DU^3/TU^2) *pt(DU)] / r2(DU)

        Calculate the total DeltaV required for the transfer:

        DeltaV(DU/TU) = DeltaV1(DU/TU) + DeltaV2(DU/TU)

        Calculate the true anomaly at the interception point:

        Cos[nu2(radians)] = (pt(DU) / r2(DU) - 1) / et (for an outbound transfer)

        Cos[nu2(radians)] = (pt(DU) / r1(DU) - 1) / et (for an inbound transfer)

        Calculate the eccentric anomaly at the interception point:

        E(radians) = ArcCos[(et + Cos[nu(radians)]) / (1 + et * Cos[nu(radians)])] (for an outbound transfer)

        E(radians) = 2 * pi - ArcCos[(et + Cos[nu(radians)]) / (1 + et * Cos[nu(radians)])] (for an inbound transfer)

        Calculate the time required for the transfer:

        TOF(TU) = Sqrt[at(DU)^3 / mu(DU^3/TU^2)] * (E(radians) - et * Sin[E(radians)]) (for an outbound transfer)

        TOF(TU) = Sqrt[at(DU)^3 / mu(DU^3/TU^2)] * (E(radians) - et * Sin[E(radians)] - pi) (for an inbound transfer)

        And yet... Toss a frisbee and your dog takes off after it, jumps and catches it perfectly, his brain doing essentially the same formula.

        And this from an animal that can barely be taught to count to three!

    4. Timbo

      I found the answer myself here:

      Basically the Soyuz can catch up with the ISS within 4 orbits so about 6 hours from launch to docking. It requires the ISS to move a little (in its orbit) plus the Soyuz mission controllers need to do their bit too, as do the cosmonauts/astronauts.

      So, it can be done so why it's not done regularly is why I'm still stumped !!

  8. Andrew Newstead

    velocity and space

    A comment on the problem of matching velocities in orbit and living space on a Soyuz.

    It's true that there are trajectories that allow a Soyuz to rendezvous with the ISS quickly ( a few hours) but these depend on the relative positions of the station and the launch site at launch. Sometimes these paths are not available and so there has to be a period of "catching up" in orbit, the Soyuz makes orbital changes that will allow it to gain on the station and then match orbit for docking. Things could be done faster but the Soyuz doesn't carry sufficient propellant to allow this and still have enough for a deorbit burn at the end of the mission.

    Regarding the living space of the Soyuz, yes it is tight but it does have an orbital module attached, effectively a spare room. This more than doubles the living space of the Soyuz spacecraft compared to just the re-entry module on it's own and can be closed off from the re-entry module so giving a degree of privacy if needed. I believe the toilet facilities are in the orbital module. This module is usually full of cargo on the way up and is packed with rubbish for the return flight, as the module is jettisoned before re-entry and burns up in the atmosphere.

    Hope this helps.

    1. DropBear Silver badge

      Re: velocity and space

      Okay so if they launch randomly they might have fiddle a bit until the orbits meet; fair enough. But is there any sane reason not to launch at favorable moment only? I would assume they come along fairly often, at least every few days or so...

      1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

        Re: velocity and space

        The main criterium is "same orbital plane", because changing that takes lots of propellant.

        I don't know the mechanics but I imagine that getting "some orbital plane" may well mean the ISS is wherever at launch time.

      2. cray74

        Re: velocity and space

        But is there any sane reason not to launch at favorable moment only?

        They do launch at favorable moments and close fairly rapidly. Note the Dragon cargo flights only have instantaneous launch windows to the ISS - they don't twiddle their thumbs and launch when the ISS is just anywhere.

        The shuttle got within 15km of the station in just 3 hours: Quoting David Hammen's reply, "The Space Shuttle rendezvous timeline took 6 hours from start to finish. With 4½ hours to go, the Shuttle was 250,000 feet (76 km) behind the Space Station. With 3 hours to go, the Shuttle was about 50,000 feet (15 km) behind. Relative velocities became slower as the Shuttle closed in on the Station. The last 400 feet were incredibly slow, taking about 40 minutes."

        Over a period of 6 hours or two days the approaching vessel makes several burns. This entails making a burn, having controllers on the ground monitor the effects on the vessel's orbit, then making another correcting burn until the errors are small enough for a safe final approach.

        Several planned burn opportunities allow you to set up the navigational math in advance: correcting errors in plane, then errors in phase, and final error elimination. A similarity can be seen in shuttle history: It was an achievement in experience and confidence for the US shuttle program to begin "direct insertions."

        Early shuttle flights had two planned orbital maneuvering system (OMS) burns to establish a circular orbit. The first (OMS-1) happened shortly after main engine shutdown to eliminate errors in velocity that accumulated in launch and set up an elliptical orbit to the desired apogee. The second, OMS-2, happened 45 minutes after launch (at apogee) to raise the perigee from "Launch Pad 39A" to "desired circular orbit." After several years of shuttle flights and improved navigational techniques, most shuttle flights were able to achieve OMS-1's goals with their main engines, the so-called "direct insertion flight." OMS-1 was finally eliminated, leaving only OMS-2.

        Per this mega detailed page, some things are worth noting but they boil down to "rockets are imperfectly precise critters." The shuttles started with two OMS burns to get to the correct orbit and often had manual RCS corrections to the OMS corrections.

        The famous precision of NASA's deep space probes in flybys doesn't happen because the probes were aimed correctly at launch. Instead, they depend on correction burns and even continuous correction for things like sunlight pressure. The infamous Mars Climate Orbiter had five correction burns planned and the navigational process was: burn, watch the results, calculate a correction, and repeat. While Lockheed ultimately holds responsibility for MCO's unplanned Martian lithobraking maneuver, NASA navigators watched four consecutive burns leave MCO off course - they saw each burn was not getting the correct results - but decided the optional fifth burn was unnecessary.

        Vessels heading to the ISS are dealing with the same thing. The launch isn't going to be quite correct, so that needs to be fixed. Setting up a lower orbit to overtake the ISS isn't going to be quite correct, so that needs to be fixed. Fixing requires monitoring the vessel's flight, computing the correction, and making a burn at a correct time - which may require waiting to perigee or apogee for the most efficient results.

        Pardon me for bringing up a game, but the Kerbal Space Program is highly instructive in orbital maneuvering. I'd done everything from manual orbital insertion to manual interplanetary flight and manual landing on another planet and never wanted to use an autopilot mod until I started trying orbital interception and docking. If I was lucky and had an empty weekend day, I could achieve 2 or 3 dockings that left me wrecked. So: MechJeb for that stuff now. A few practice flights and orbital intercept attempts might help make these answers more visceral for you.

  9. JeffyPoooh Silver badge

    Astronaut Jerry Linenger told the story of the fire on the Mir space station...

    I forget where I saw this. Perhaps the Nova series on PBS (= BBC Horizon). Astronaut Jerry Linenger, in his glorious Southern twang accent, described the fire on Mir.

    Here's a related Q&A response: " was an extremely dangerous fire—three-foot flames, sparks flying out the end. It was an oxygen canister, had an oxygen slurry chemical mix, and it had everything a fire desires: it had oxygen, fuel; it was melting metal. You couldn't see the fingers in front of your face for about an hour. During the fire and after the fire, we went through three fire extinguishers, and we were still unable to get the fire out. 14 minutes later, the fire was out—definitely a life- threatening situation. We donned respirators, and without those, we would have suffocated."

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