Part of the show Naked Science Q&A and Polonium Poisoning
Sam via email asked:
What would happen if you lit a match in space? Considering there's oxygen in the air on a space station but no up or down, what would be the structure of the flame?
A flame goes upwards because of convection. The hot gas created by the flame rises. As you say, there's no up or down in space so the gas just forms a sphere around where it's burning and you just get a sort of circular flame. But actually stuff doesn't really burn very well in space. This is because the process of the gas going upwards (as happens on Earth) gets rid of the carbon dioxide formed in the burning process and sucks in more oxygen to keep the flame stoked. This keeps everything burning quickly. As there's no upward movement of gas in space, you don't have much oxygen getting into the flame and it's quite a poor flame that is formed. So essentially it chokes itself in its own waste products and just goes out.