No buoyancy makes it harder for fires to spread, but it also makes them harder to detect since smoke doesn’t rise toward a detector on the ceiling. Instead, fire detectors aboard the Space Station are housed in the ventilation system that moves air through the modules constantly. In the event of a fire, astronauts use a three-step fire suppression system. First, they shut off the ventilation system to delay the fire’s spread. Then they shut off power to the affected unit, and, finally, they use fire extinguishers on the flames. The Russian module is equipped with a foam extinguisher and the others use CO2 units. (Image credit: Warner Brothers)
A microgravity environment can cause some nonintuitive behaviors in fluids. Many of the effects that dominate fluid dynamics in space are masked by gravity’s effects here on Earth. As a result, it can be very difficult to predict how seemingly straightforward technologies like heat exchangers, refrigeration units, and fuel tanks will behave. The photos above show two bubblejets—created by injecting a liquid-gas mixture into a liquid—colliding in microgravity. This particular experiment was conducted in a drop tower rather than on-orbit, which produced some side effects like the large bubbles seen in the images. These were created by the coalescence of smaller bubbles that congregated near the top of the tank shortly before the experiment attained free-fall. (Photo credit: F. Sunol and R. Gonzalez-Cinca)
What happens to a wet washcloth when wrung out in space? Astronaut Chris Hadfield answers this question from students with a demonstration. Without gravity to pull the water downward, surface tension effects dominate and the wrung cloth forms a tube of water around it. Surface tension and capillary action draw the fluid up and onto Hadfield’s hands as long as he holds the cloth. After he lets go, we see that the water remaining around the cloth soaks back in (again due to capillary action) and the wet, twisted washcloth simply floats without releasing water or relaxing its shape. While pretty much what I would have expected, this was a very cool result to see! (Video credit: C. Hadfield/CSA; submitted by Bobby E)
In a gravitational field, the pressure in a fluid increases with depth. You can consider it due to the weight of the fluid above. Outside of scuba diving or hiking at altitude, this effect is not one typically given much thought. But what effect can it have at a smaller scale? This video shows the collapse and rebound of three initially spherical cavitation bubbles inside a liquid. Each bubble is created in a different gravitational field - one in microgravity, one in normal gravity, and one at 1.8x Earth gravity. The bubble in microgravity remains axisymmetric and spherical, but the two bubbles recorded in gravitational fields develop jets during rebound. Even at a scale of only a few millimeters, gravity causes an imbalance in pressure across the bubble that creates asymmetry. (Video credit: D. Obreschkow et al.)
Any phenomenon in fluid dynamics typically involves the interaction and competition of many different forces. Sometimes these forces are of very different magnitudes, and it can be difficult to determine their effects. This video focuses on capillary force, which is responsible for a liquid’s ability to climb up the walls of its container, creating a meniscus and allowing plants and trees to passively draw water up from their roots. Being intermolecular in nature, capillary forces can be quite slight in comparison to gravitational forces, and thus it’s beneficial to study them in the absence of gravity.
In the 1950s, drop tower experiments simulating microgravity studied the capillary-driven motion of fluids up a glass tube that was partially submerged in a pool of fluid. Without gravity acting against it, capillary action would draw the fluid up to the top of the glass tube, but no droplets would be ejected. In the current research, a nozzle has been added to the tubes, which accelerates the capillary flow. In this case, both in terrestrial labs and aboard the International Space Station, the momentum of the flow is sufficient to invert the meniscus from concave to convex, allowing a jet of fluid out of the tube. At this point, surface tension instabilities take over, breaking the fluid into droplets. (Video credit: A. Wollman et al.)
The Rayleigh-Taylor instability can form at the interface between two liquids of different density under the influence of gravity, but a similar instability can occur in the absence of gravity. The image sequence above shows the Richtmyer-Meshkov instability, which occurs between two liquids of differing densities (regardless of their orientation) when impulsively accelerated. In this case, the experiment was conducted in a drop tower to simulate microgravity with the apparatus dropped on a spring to provide the impulse. As the instability grows, asymmetries appear. Nonlinear dynamics will amplify these distortions, eventually leading to turbulent breakdown. (Photo credit: C. Niederhaus/NASA Glenn, J. Jacobs/University of Arizona)
When a water balloon pops in microgravity, waves propagate from the initial point of contact and the final point of contact (where the balloon skin peels away). As these waves come inward toward one another, the water is compressed from its original potato-like shape into a pancake-like one. In most cases, surface tension will provide a damping force on this oscillatory motion, eventually making the water into a sphere. On Earth, in contrast, a water balloon seems to hold its shape after popping. This is because the effect of gravity on the water is much larger than the effect of the propagating waves. This is one reason that it is useful to have a laboratory in space! Without a microgravity environment, it is much harder to study and observe secondary and tertiary-order forces on a physical event. (Video credit: Don Pettit, Science Off The Sphere)
Here astronaut Andre Kuipers demonstrates fluid dynamics in microgravity. A roughly spherical droplet of water acts as a lens, refracting the image of his face so that it appears upside down. The air bubble inside the droplet refracts the image back to our normal perspective again. (Photo credit: Andre Kuipers, ESA; via Bad Astronomy)
Microgravity continues to be a fascinating playground for observing surface tension effects on the macroscale without pesky gravity getting in the way. Here astronaut Don Pettit has created a sphere of water, which he then strikes with a jet of air from a syringe. Initially, the momentum from the jet of air creates a sharp cavity in the water, which rebounds into a jet of water that ejects one or more satellite drops. Surface waves and inertial waves (inside the water sphere) reflect back and forth until the fluid comes to rest as a sphere once more. Note how similar the behavior is to the pinch-off of a water column. Both effects are dominated by surface tension, but on Earth we can only see this behavior with extremely small droplets and high-speed cameras! (Video credit: Don Pettit, Science Off the Sphere)
This week astronaut Don Pettit is playing with acoustic oscillators on the space station. He and Dan Burbank transform some of their vacuum cleaner tubes into didgeridoo-like instruments. By buzzing into the tube, Pettit is creating an acoustic standing wave, and, depending on the geometry at the far end, the wavelength of the standing wave and thus pitch of the sound is shifted.