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Fireworks have had a very long history and have evolved into highly engineered devices with simultaneously excellent performance and reliability. Even small tweaks require research, testing, and are often patented.

If folks in a Moon or Mars base sought to entertain themselves by staging a fireworks display on the surface viewable through a window, could they use current Earth firework technology, either by smuggling their stored energy devices from Earth or trying to reproduce designs in their "lab"?

What would be the technical issues they would face on the Moon or on Mars?

While I think many of us have a bit of personal experience playing with "over the counter" fireworks, the serious devices are in a separate class and their technology is extensive. Please try to avoid "guess answers" or pure speculation. But if something can be supported using reproducible math and physics or by citing sources, great!

google patents search for "firework" patents.google.com "firework"

One such example is US562733 Fireworks projectile having distinct shell configuration filed by Walt Disney Co.

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    $\begingroup$ Given that the Moon & Mars do not have atmospheric oxygen, the key would be to have electrical detonation/ignition & an appropriate oxidizer in an appropriate format that would allow combustion during the expansion phase, after the initial at height explosion. $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    Oct 31 '20 at 5:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Fred so first zap, a big "oooo!!!" but no "aaaahhhh" :-( $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Oct 31 '20 at 6:16
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    $\begingroup$ To get the aaahhh, I think the substance of this question would have to be allied to a similar question about rescue flares: What would need to be done to rescue flare so they could be used on the Moon or Mars? With particular concern about the longevity of the light production phase of such flares. Solve that problem & if that can be applied to fireworks then maybe there'd be an aaahhh with fireworks. :-) $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    Oct 31 '20 at 8:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Fred Mars certainly has atmospheric oxygen. Just.... not a lot of it! $\endgroup$ Nov 2 '20 at 12:56
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The great majority of firework effects involve fuels and oxidizers incorporated together. The mortars and rockets would function fine to propel the shells, the burst charges would do their job, the stars would burn and glow.

However, some effects do rely on an atmosphere:

  • Obviously, you won't be hearing any reports or whistles.
  • The combustion products will behave drastically differently, quickly expanding into vacuum instead of leaving a trail or cloud: look at the pictures of Falcon 9 launches near dawn or dusk for an idea of how atmospheric pressure affects this. Visible flames may be a lot larger and dimmer.
  • Some effects rely on air resistance providing a low terminal velocity...parachutes aren't going to work, small light stars are going to fall at precisely the same rate as their big, heavy neighbors.
  • Sticks, fins, and other features intended to stabilize, orient, or spin using aerodynamic forces aren't going to do their jobs.
  • Some effects do rely on atmospheric oxygen for combustion. Sprays of fine embers or sparks of burning metal would have to be imitated with small stars.

Handling the fireworks will be more hazardous. Static charges build up in a vacuum even more than they do on the driest days on Earth, and there's no air to dissipate heat from friction or sunlight. Pyrotechnic compositions may also become more dangerous or simply physically disintegrate if allowed to lose their moisture in vacuum.

The weather would at least be predictable, and there's nothing stopping you from doing displays during the day, just shield the windows from the sun and sunlit landscape.

Mars would be little different, except the sky will be lit up during the day so you'll want to wait for actual night (which at least will only be a matter of hours, not weeks) and weather will be a bigger issue. The Martian atmosphere isn't going to noticeably confine exhaust and smoke, support combustion, or make things like fins useful. It will technically carry sound, but you're probably not going to be hearing much, especially from inside a habitat. External microphones might pick up something recognizable and relay it to interior speakers.

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    $\begingroup$ Is this answer only about the moon or is Mars' atmosphere so thin that there would be little differences between the two? $\endgroup$
    – eps
    Oct 31 '20 at 17:27
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    $\begingroup$ @ChristopherJamesHuff But will fireworks be audible on Mars? I agree with eps, this answer seems to ignore the Mars half of the question -- consider editing in enough to make the answer complete for Mars too. $\endgroup$
    – nanoman
    Oct 31 '20 at 23:03
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    $\begingroup$ @nanoman It would basically be inaudible. In theory there is an atmosphere, so it will transmit sound waves. However, since the pressure is less than 1% of the atmosphere of Earth, you would have something like a 20dB or 40dB drop in volume (I can't remember if pressure and SPL are linear in relationship or quadratic). Given how loud we want fireworsk to be, they'd be dang quiet! $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Oct 31 '20 at 23:53
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    $\begingroup$ @CortAmmon not to mention all the stuff that'll be between you and the fireworks. $\endgroup$ Oct 31 '20 at 23:59
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    $\begingroup$ Might be worth adding that, on the Moon, the absolute lack of atmospheric resistance would mean that debris from the explosion would proceed at constant velocity, without deceleration, in a parabolic path. If that path happened to intersect your spacesuit visor, it might be unpleasant... $\endgroup$ Nov 2 '20 at 11:00
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The youtube channel Cody's lab has tested some small fireworks in a vacuum chamber. Fireworks in vacuum, some pyrotechnics, and gunpowder.

While in principle the firework carry the oxidizer and don't depend on air, in practice they did not work very well, as the gases escape too fast to sustain the combustion.

So normal fireworks probably would not work very well.

Maybe if they were larger, or bonded more tightly together, or contained more oxidizer, or had some containment vessel, where the mixture can build up pressure.

In one of the videos Cody tries to ignite the pyrotechnic material with a laser. This also turns out to be difficult or impossible. The material reacts a bit, the gases then immediately eject the material, so a self-sustaining flame front is impossible.

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    $\begingroup$ While the question does point out "While I think many of us have a bit of personal experience playing with 'over the counter' fireworks, the serious devices are in a separate class and their technology is extensive." I can't resist a good "blow stuff up in a vacuum chamber" video. +1 :-) That said, I do not understand the first video's explanation of why black power burns in liquid nitrogen but not in a vacuum "because there is no pressure". A fuse consists of black powder already compressed in a cord. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Nov 1 '20 at 4:40
  • $\begingroup$ I don't see how atmospheric pressure has any addition compressing effect unless the fuse has a vacuum inside it. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Nov 1 '20 at 4:44
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    $\begingroup$ I was very surprised my this myself. In the gunpowder video with the laser, it looks as if the material was blown apart by the gases that were produced. I think gunpowder comes in small grains (no expert in the field) that can easily move. Or maybe it is because the oxygen needs to get from the decomposing nitrate to the carbon, and that takes a while? $\endgroup$
    – guest
    Nov 1 '20 at 5:50
  • $\begingroup$ Obviously solid rockets work well in space, but hat would happen if the chamber pressure was suddenly reduced to zero (i.e. by using the flight termination system on an SRB). Would the chunks of propellant continue to burn? $\endgroup$
    – guest
    Nov 1 '20 at 5:56
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    $\begingroup$ The issue looks like the hot gases escaping before they can heat the remaining solid material to the ignition point. Atmospheric pressure confines them to the vicinity of the burning pyrotechnic composition. A pile of gunpowder is not representative of its behavior in an enclosed tube or shell, though the shell might need to be tougher to allow combustion to progress further before it bursts. Stars might have to be mixed to burn faster, and perhaps be larger/have more complex geometry (holes might help). $\endgroup$ Nov 1 '20 at 22:01
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Fireworks need three things to operate, heat, fuel and oxygen*. Luckily for the idea of fireworks on the Moon or Mars, many fireworks use a pyrotechnic composition that supplies their own oxygen which is why the devices will work under water or in an inert environment. Any fireworks operating in space, on the Moon or on Mars would need some slight changes from earth fireworks, like adding more oxidizers and adding an electric match for ignition. I am listing a few different effects that already operate in space to show how not only is the idea plausible, we're already doing something similar today.

Rockets

2500 rockets launched by gwally at Winterblast

A good example of a firework operating in space is the rocket. Rockets in the fireworks world use a motor made from solid-propellant with a combination of black powder, an oxidizer with metal powders like titanium, iron or other metallic powders to create the sparks leaving the rocket. Pyrotechnicians call the effect a tail. The above photo was taken at fireworks festival called Western Winterblast in 2014 when I launched 2500 rockets at once. The closest example in the rocketry world would be solid fuel rockets like the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Booster, which are fueled with ammonium perchlorate (oxidizer) and atomized aluminum powder. The separation between the Shuttle and the boosters happens at around 146,000 ft and they rise to around 220,000 ft, which means the rockets operate in space.

As beautiful as a giant tail would look coming from any rocket, adding a metallic powder to the fuel would add weight and decrease thrust and a number of other problems, which I am not prepared to list.

Photo by Mike Woolson

The same effect could be done with liquid rockets. The photo above by Mike Woolson is from a fireworks show at Burning Man 2009 where a group called Black Rock FX staged a simulated launch of a retro-styled rocket built by a group known as Five Ton Crane. The effect of a translucent fireball is called a ghost mine, which consists of methanol, a lifting charge, with metallic powders or chemicals added to color the flame. The problem is that fuels like RP1 are hard to color because of the presence of sodium in the fuel would create yellow flames, which we have discovered overpowers any other colorant. Reds, greens and blues become much harder to produce.

Mines

Mines by Spirit of 76 fireworks at Winterblast

Another firework already in space is the mine. In the fireworks world, a mine is a ground effect with a lifting charge designed to lift a pyrotechnic composition into the air. Usually the composition is called a star, which are a composition of black powder, an oxidizer, chemicals for colors or metals. The photo was taken at Western Winterblast and features mines from Spirit of 76 fireworks. In space, the same concept is used to separate objects like a booster rocket from the main rocket in a directed explosion. The difference is the lack of chemicals and metals to add color to the detonation. However, the effect could be repurposed to create a color display.

Comets

Another effect fired from a mortar tube is called a comet. It is a rising effect, which means it does not have that classic burst in the sky. Instead, a lifting charge ignites it creates a tail of sparks into the air. Sometimes these are attached to a mortar shell which breaks in the sky. The best example is the shell fired from a flare gun. These could definitely be engineered to be fired on the Moon or Mars and create tails of color into the sky.

Artificial Meteors

ALE cubesat to launch a fireworks meteor show

Fireworks in space is not a radical concept. One of the reasons it has not been done is we have a limited amount of visits to the Moon and none to Mars. However, fireworks in space is an idea that was presented for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. A Japanese company ALE (Astro Live Experiences - see photo above) was planning on painting the sky above the Tokyo Olympics with artificial meteors for the Opening Ceremonies. Due to the Olympics being postponed, this may not happen until 2023. The entire concept is using small metal balls to create different colors as they enter the atmosphere over the event.

If any of you are planning on launching a cubesat into space, I hope you can find a way to add a small payload to do your own pyrotechnics in space.

Good luck.

  • I mentioned you need three things to create fire, but technically there's four. You can also produce fire through chemical reaction. A good example would be hydrazine fuel.
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Apollo 16 launched three rocket-powered grenades on the moon

Two Apollo flights each carried 4 grenades launched from a mortar, as part of the Active Seismic Experiment of the Apollo Lunar Surface Equipment Package (ALSEP). Apollo 14 placed their mortar too close to the central station, so they were never fired. Three of four placed by Apollo 16 were fired. Because the mortar pitch sensor broke and the scientific objectives were met, the final Apollo 16 grenade was not fired.

The four grenades are similar, differing only in the amount of propellant and high explosive. Each consists of a thin fiberglass casing with a 2.7-inch square cross section and ranging from four to six inches long. The casing contains the rocket motor, safeslide plate, high explosive charge, ignition and detonation devices, thermal battery, and a 30 MHz transmitter. The range line is attached to the transmitter output end serves as a half wave end feed antenna.

ALSEP Flight System Familiarization Manual, p. 2-164

Although these were purpose-built rather than commercially-produced fireworks, both types are launched from a mortar tube, have a solid rocket motor, and have an explosive charge. The ALSEP grenades did not have any colors or other visual or audible effects; those are discussed in Christopher James Huff's answer.

Furthermore, the Saturn launch vehicle used several small solid rocket motors in the vacuum of space to interstage separation and for an ullage burn prior to starting the third stage. So launching fireworks is definitely plausible.

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As the other answers have said the actual fireworks are likely to do at least something, but they have failed to mention one stumbling block. The usual ignition methods are very unlikely to function. Punks, cigarette lighters and matches do not bring their own oxidizer (well, matches generally do for initial ignition but not for continued burning).

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    $\begingroup$ Electrical matches are widely used even here on Earth. $\endgroup$ Oct 31 '20 at 22:11
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    $\begingroup$ I would agree with @ChristopherJamesHuff. I omitted mentioning ignition for brevity. Most modern fireworks at display shows are ignited with a nichrome wire with explosive composition attached. This provides the spark and heat to ignite black powder. It might need to be reformulated, but something similar is already used in spaceflight. $\endgroup$
    – gwally
    Oct 31 '20 at 22:58

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