Everything is set for this coming Monday's skydive stunt spectacular, in which Felix Baumgartner will attempt to set a new world record for the highest, longest, and fastest freefall in history. Once he leaps from a helium balloon positioned 23 miles (37 km) above New Mexico, Baumgartner expects to go supersonic a mere 40 seconds into his descent. And this near-space skydive, should it be successful, could set the stage for the next momentous human achievement: The space dive.
So, to get you ready for Monday, here's everything you need to know about the historic jump.
Who holds the current record?
Back on August 16, 1960, Colonel (then Captain) Joseph Kittinger of the United States Air Force jumped 19.5 miles (31.3 km) from a helium balloon. It was part of Project Excelsior, a program designed to test a new multi-stage parachute system that could be deployed from extreme heights. The U.S. military was becoming increasingly concerned that pilots, who were flying planes at unprecedented altitudes, would not be able to survive the required jump.
And indeed, previous tests with dummies revealed that conventional parachutes would cause skydivers to fall into a flat spin at a rate of 200 revolutions per minute — which would be potentially fatal.
Using the new parachute, Kittinger survived the jump — but not without incident. During his ascent, the pressure seal in his right glove failed, causing his hand to swell to twice its normal size. Despite the extreme pain caused by the low pressure (which he kept to himself for fear that the jump would be cancelled), he went ahead and made "the highest step in the world."
In terms of the numbers, Kittinger's freefall lasted for four minutes and 36 seconds in which he attained a top speed of 614 miles per hour (988 km/hr). The entire descent took a little over 13 minutes.
Kittinger's record has stood for over half a century — which is pretty badass when you think about it.
Who is Felix Baumgartner?
He is a 43 year-old Austrian stunt skydiver and BASE jumper. Baumgartner has been skydiving since he was 16 years old. A member of the Austrian military and a former pilot, he was a part of their demonstration and competition team.
After leaving the military, Baumgartner started to perform a number of skydiving and BASE jumping stunts. He holds a number of records and accomplishments. In 1999, he jumped from the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur setting a record for the highest parachute jump from a building. Four years later, he became the first person to skydive across the English Channel using a specially made carbon fiber wing. He has also jumped from the hand of the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, and more recently, he became the first person to jump from the 91st floor observation deck of the Taipei 101 building in Taiwan.
Earlier this year, on July 25, and in preparation for the Big Jump, Baumgartner had a successful trial run in which he performed a freefall from 18 miles above the Earth. He attained a top speed of 536 miles per hour (864 km/hr), which is roughly the speed of an airliner.
He is only the third person to safely parachute from a height of over 13.5 miles (21.7 km).
What kind of equipment will he be using?
There are three major components to his equipment: The suit, the capsule, and the helium balloon.
The suit was specifically designed for the jump and will able to withstand temperatures as low as –70°F (–56°C). It consists of four layers, including an insulating and fire-repellant material called Nomex, and a breathable liner that will rest against his skin.
It also features a pressure system to help him avoid decompression sickness, hypoxia, and tissue damage. As he falls, a special valve and a pair of diaphragms will regulate the suit's internal pressure. It also has a chest pack that's equipped with a voice transmitter and receiver, an accelerometer (which will confirm his speed), and a hi-def video camera with a superwide 120-degree view.
And importantly, the suit is also equipped with a G-Meter that will measure the gravitational forces on Baumgartner. Should he go into a potentially fatal spin, the system will automatically release a three-foot drogue parachute specially designed to stabilize spins.
The suit also features a special face shield that will prevent his breath from crystallizing on the surface, along with three different parachutes. To ensure stability, the chutes are 2.5 times larger than usual.
It's worth noting that Joseph Kittinger helped to advise Baumgartner on the suit during the development process.
As for the capsule, it weighs 2,900 lbs and consists of a pressure sphere (where Baumgartner will be positioned during the ascent), a supporting outer cage, the outermost shell, and the base and crush pads (which are designed to handle a landing of up to 8 Gs).
The 30 million-cubic-foot helium balloon is one tenth the thickness of a Ziploc bag — but weighs more than 3,000 pounds. If the entire thing was stretched out it would cover about 40 acres.
How will the jump unfold?
On Monday October 8, Baumgartner will enter into his capsule and start to make his long ascent into the stratosphere. The entire journey to near-space is expected to take almost three hours. Once Baumgartner reaches the stratosphere, the temperature will start to increase (just a little bit) on account of the ozone molecules absorbing ultraviolet light from the sun.
At the 23 mile mark (37 km or 120,000 feet) above New Mexico, he will wait for the "all clear" from mission control. After he depressurizes and detaches himself from all connections, Baumgartner will open the door and position himself for the jump. In the event of an emergency, he could ride the capsule back to earth — but while depressurized and with limited oxygen reserves. It wouldn't be pretty.
Assuming everything will be a go, he will then leap from the capsule.
At this point, Baumgartner's rate of velocity will be nothing short of intense. He will enter into what's called the "delta position" (head down with arms at his side) in order to achieve maximum velocity. And because of the exceptionally thin air in the stratosphere, he will experience virtually no wind resistance, and he will not hit any kind of terminal velocity. As a result, he's expected to achieve the speed of sound (690 miles/hour or 1,110 km/hr) after only 40 seconds of freefall. It will be crucial for Baumgartner to maintain a stable delta position, otherwise he may enter into an uncontrollable spin and lose consciousness.
It's worth noting that Baumgartner will experience a sonic boom, but because the air is so thin it won't present a problem. At least that's the theory.
As Baumgartner falls away from the edge of near-space and makes his way into the troposphere, he will start to hit resistance and gradually slow down.
Once he hits the 5,000 feet mark (about five minutes after his jump), Baumgartner will deploy his parachute. It should take him another 10 to 15 minutes to reach the surface.
Should everything go as planned, he will become the first person to break the speed of sound and achieve Mach 1 in freefall. He will also set the record for the highest and longest freefall. And not only that, he will also set a record for the highest manned balloon flight.
What are the scientific implications?
While the jump certainly gives off the impression that it's a stunt (and let's face it — it most certainly is), there are some definite scientific and technological aspects to the mission.
First and foremost, Baumgartner's suit is state of the art. Assuming that it functions as planned, it will aid in the development of a new generation of space suits — including units with enhanced mobility and improved visual clarity.
And as New Scientist recently noted, it could also be a forerunner to suits that may actually allow humans to freefall from even more extreme heights — possibly even from space. This could prove valuable for the burgeoning space tourist industry (mostly for safety purposes in the event of a problem, or for future thrill seekers) .
It's not clear, of course, if a human will ever be able to perform a full reentry wearing only a spacesuit — but Baumgarter's test could offer a strong indication of the tolerances required to pull off such a remarkable feat. But in all fairness, it will take some considerable technological know-how to develop a suit that can withstand the intense heat of reentry and not allow its occupant to be burnt to a crisp.
Lastly, the mission will help scientists develop protocols for exposure to high altitude and high accelerations, and create parachute systems capable of supporting such feats.
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