HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - In the past month, people living or driving near Redstone Arsenal wondered what was going on. There was a large plume of black smoke rising from the base. Something was obviously on fire.
"We take a missile component, something like a rocket motor or a missile warhead and we'll place it out here in this pan, and light a fire underneath it to see what kind of reaction we get," said Justin Merritt, an engineer with the Redstone Test Center.
That process described by Justin requires filling the "Fast Cook-off Pan" with jet fuel and setting it on fire. The idea is to find out if the item being tested will be dangerous when it's exposed to an open flame. "Is it going to explode or detonate, or is it going to sit there and burn and have a benign reaction?" Merritt explained.
Benign is the goal on the battlefield or flight deck. Industry tries to design components that don't do anything but burn. Any reaction more violent than that could cause injuries.
The cook-off pan itself is made of steel and constructed in large part by Test Center workers. They use it several times a year for test fires, and the flaming jet fuel causes a lot of smoke that is almost always visible from miles away. A question might be, is that smoke in any way dangerous?
"No, sir, it's rising up into the atmosphere. It's no different from the helicopters flying around burning the same amount of (aviation) fuel," said Merritt.
The test area where the cook-off pan is located is on a remote part of the base. It isn't near where people live. That's a good thing because there will be more fire and smoke. As components get better, they have to be tested.