Foil keeps people safe from extreme heat by wrapping themselves up like a burrito, and is adapted from technology used to protect spaceships

Nasa has adapted spaceship technology to allow firefighters to wrap themselves up like burritos and keep themselves safe from forest fires.

Two researchers are working to see if they can use the thermal protection system technology, built to help space entry vehicles survive the huge heat that they undergo as they move through the atmosphere, to protect firefighters if they are stuck in a fire. By creating a huge tin foil wrap out of the heat shielding material, Nasa hopes to give people a way of surviving extreme temperatures.

The idea for the project came after 19 people from an elite group of firefighters died during a forest fire in Arizona. After that tragedy, the two researchers — Anthony Calomino and Mary Beth Wusk, from the Nasa’s Langley Research Center — got in touch with the US Forest Service to see if they could develop the technology to keep people safe.

"During the last six years we have been working with a NASA team of thermal material specialists that are designing lightweight, multi-layered flexible thermal protection systems for space entry vehicles," the two wrote in their email, following the 2013 fire. "These systems are capable of protecting delicate hardware from temperatures exceeding 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,649 degrees Celsius). With the progress made in material development, we feel we may have a more capable technology that can protect our firefighters under extreme heating conditions."

The Forest Service had already been looking into such technology and so the two agencies set up research, with the aim of producing an improved shelter by 2018.

The prototypes hgave been designed and manufactured, and will be sent to be tested in a real-world environment in Canada. They will be placed in extreme environments and their performance will be measured by specialist instruments.

To trial the shelters, testers set a controlled fire in a section of forest. The performance of the shelters is then monitored by scientists and engineers until the fire quickly burns through the testing environment.

Nasa is promoting the partnership as one of the ways that the technology developed by Nasa for use in space can be helpful on Earth, too. Nasa runs a special “Spinoff” section on its website where it details all of the ways its technology is being used, in part to respond to criticism that the funding spent on the agency would be better used on Earth.