Felix Baumgartner’s space jump relied on science, technology and some good weather

Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner set three records in his successful Red Bull Stratos jump yesterday — one for the highest manned balloon flight, one for highest skydive, and another for being the first person to exceed the speed of sound without a vehicle.

Behind the safe and successful completion of the jump were several pieces of technology, some of which needed to be designed from the ground up.

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Supersonic skydive scienceCBC science correspondent Bob McDonald explains the science behind extreme skydiver Felix Baumgartner's leap from the edge of space

The capsule that took Baumgartner up for his jump took nearly 5 years to develop and test. It consisted of four main components:

  • The 1.8m-diameter 'pressure sphere' — where Baumgartner sat during his ascent — housed all the instrumentation and displays, and a chair for Baumgartner to sit in on the way up. The sphere was kept at a pressure of only about 54 kilopascals (a little over half of sea level air pressure) during the mission, since that would allow Baumgartner to make the ascent without pressurizing his suit, and still minimize the risk of decompression sickness.
  • Surrounding the pressure sphere was the 'cage', which was constructed of welded chromium molybdenum tubes — the same kind uses in aircraft construction — which acted as the support structure for the entire capsule.
  • Around the outside was the shell, which not only provided an attractive face to the design, but its fibreglass-coated foam-insulated skin provided protection from the temperatures in the stratosphere, which can drop to lower than -50 degrees C, and its specially-designed shape provided greater stability for the capsule on its way back down to Earth.
  • The 'base' of the capsule had two layers of 'honeycomb' protection, with outer 'crush pads' designed to withstand 8Gs of force to protect the capsule upon landing, and an inner aluminum 'sandwich panel' that would prevent any sharp objects on the ground from damaging the capsule as it touched down.

The balloon that took the capsule up was also specially made for the mission.

  • It was made of over 160,000 square metres of plastic film, thinner than the width of a human hair (about 20 micrometres thick), but had a mass of nearly 1700 kilograms.
  • When ready to fly, it was over 167 metres tall, and resembled a large ice-cream cone. As it rose and the pressure dropped, the balloon expanded becoming a round ball.

The suit Baumgartner wore was designed by the David Clark Company, which has been designing and building suits for space missions for over 50 years, and this is apparently the first suit they have ever built for a private space mission.

  • It was modeled after suits worn by pilots of high-altitude spy planes.
  • It was specially designed to protect Baumgartner from temperature extremes down to -68 degrees Celsius, and to keep the suit properly pressurized during the mission, to prevent 'ebullism' — where the liquid in your tissues turns to gas in the low pressure and expands dangerously.
  • The suit incorporated new design features — due to a skydiver's need to use specific body positions and visual cues — that increased the mobility of the wearer and increased their visibility with the use of mirrors, which "may serve as the prototype for the next-generation full-pressure suit." according to the Red Bull Stratos website.

Baumgartner had three parachutes at his disposal during the fall.

  • His main and reserve chutes were 9-cell 'ram-air' parachutes that were rated to be opened at speeds of 150 knots (277.8 km/h).
  • The reserve chute included a fail-safe called 'CYPRES' (Cybernetic Parachute Release System), that would have deployed it automatically if Baumgartner was still falling at more than 35 metres per second when he reached a height of 610 metres.
  • Also included was a specially-designed drogue stabilization chute, which was the first drogue chute developed for personal use (these are the chutes that pop open behind a jet aircraft, to shorten the length of runway it needs to land). This particular chute was intended to be used to stabilize Baumgartner should he be caught in an out-of-control spin during descent. A deploy button was included on his glove, however an automatic system that measured G-forces would open the chute itself if he experienced 3.5 Gs or more for a period of 6 seconds or more. This drogue chute was the first ever designed to deploy independently of a main or reserve chute.

The pack attached to the suit chest is described on the Stratos website as "a one-of-a-kind technology hub no bigger than a lunch pail."

  • It housed Baumgartner's communications system, GPS and telemetry equipment,
  • It also had an HD camera to record the event and equipment used by Fédération Aéronautique Internationale — the organization that handles air sports and aeronautical world records — to verify any records set in the jump
  • an inertia measurement unit (IMU) kept track of Baumgartner's altitude and spin.

One other thing was crucial for the success of the mission: Good weather.

The jump was originally scheduled to take place on October 8th, however weather conditions forced him to postpone. The next day, conditions were initially calm, but a radio problem forced a delay, and by the time it was fixed the weather conditions had deteriorated. It wasn't the weather on the way down that was the problem though. High winds at the launch site threatened to damage the balloon, which is so fragile that the 'high' winds in this case are anything over 3.2 km/h. To get a feel for how fragile that makes the balloon, a wind speed of 3.2 km/h is considered 'light air' on the Beaufort Wind Scale — not even strong enough to rate as a 'light breeze' — which would likely not even be felt on the skin.

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One aspect of the jump has pushed Baumgartner to the forefront of space science research, which he spoke about briefly in a pre-jump statement. "Proving that a human can break the speed of sound in the stratosphere and return to Earth would be a step toward creating near-space bailout procedures that currently don't exist."