National Aeronautics and Space Administration


Date of this Version



Combustion and Flame 158 (2011) 1301–1306


This article is a U.S. government work, and is not subject to copyright in the United States.


Ignition of solid combustible materials can occur at atmospheric pressures lower than standard either in high altitude environments or inside pressurized vehicles such as aircraft and spacecraft. NASA’s latest space exploration vehicles have a cabin atmosphere of reduced pressure and increased oxygen concentration. Recent piloted ignition experiments indicate that ignition times are reduced under these environmental conditions compared to normal atmospheric conditions, suggesting that the critical mass flux at ignition may also be reduced. Both effects may result in an increased fire risk of combustible solid materials in reduced pressure environments that warrant further investigation. As a result, a series of experiments are conducted to explicitly measure fuel mass flux at ignition and ignition delay time as a function of ambient pressure for the piloted ignition of PMMA under external radiant heating. Experimental findings reveal that ignition time and the fuel mass flux at ignition decrease when ambient pressure is lowered, proving with the latter what earlier authors had inferred. It is concluded that the reduced pressure environment results in smaller convective heat losses from the heated material to the surroundings, allowing for the material to heat more rapidly and pyrolyze faster. It is also proposed that a lower mass flux of volatiles is required to reach the lean flammability limit of the gases near the pilot at reduced pressures, due mainly to a reduced oxygen concentration, an enlarged boundary layer, and a thicker fuel species profile.