Sunday, October 14, 2012

Skydive from the edge of space!

Apartment - Syracuse, NY

Waiting for the skydive to begin - a quick summary of background info before the dive

It's a cloudy, drizzly and sleepy Sunday morning here in Syracuse as I start writing this post, but more importantly it is a bright, calm and clear day in Roswell, New Mexico where Felix Baumgartner will be attempting a record-setting skydive from the edge of space. As I write this, I'm watching the telecast live, although it's still a bit early for the main event.

The Austrian's ascent will be from Roswell and the jump will be from the edge of space - about 37km above the earth's surface into the New Mexico desert. The jump was originally planned for Monday, Oct 8, but the winds that day were unacceptable to the team and was hence postponed to today.

The Red Bull Stratos team has been preparing for a while, for about 7 years. The previous record set by Joseph Kittinger, who dived from 31.3km on Aug 16, 1960 - over 50 years ago!

A lot of new records will be set, apart from jumping from the highest altitude till date. With the record for height comes other records as well - longest, he is expected to freefall for 5.5mins and fastest - he is also expected to be the first human to break the sound barrier without a vehicle, the team estimates that he will reach a speed of Mach 1.2, about 1,110kmph. He will freefall until about 1.5km above the surface where he will deploy his parachute.

So what exactly is 37km? It is about 3-4 times the normal cruising altitude of long haul passenger aircraft. With respect to the layers of the atmosphere, the troposphere ends at about 8-10km above the earth's surface (8km near the poles and 10km near the equator). Since Felix will be jumping above New Mexico, this border (tropopause) will be somewhere in between. In any case, he is a good 27-28km into the stratosphere. In fact, the stratosphere ends at 50km and leads into the mesosphere. So Felix will be in the middle layers of the atmosphere when he starts his jump.

The temperature itself decreases with altitude in the troposphere and increases with altitude in the stratosphere, so at 37km, the temperature should be around -20C, similar to a pretty cold winter day in Syracuse. However, he will encounter temperatures around -60 to -70C during the jump, somewhere in the range of 10-20km, i.e. at the bottom edge of the stratosphere.

It is also about 14 times the altitude from which I had my only skydive, a tandem one, near Syracuse about four years ago. Comparing my 8,500ft jump to this 120,000ft one, I feel like mine was a bungee jump!

UPDATE: I just heard from the live feed that they haven't inflated his balloon yet waiting for the winds to die down, but Felix is all suited up and is breathing 100% oxygen.

Now, the pressure: This deep into the stratosphere, air pressure is an entirely different story when compared to temperature characteristics. Pressure just keeps dropping steadily, and so, at 37km, there is virtually no air pressure and the air molecules are very sparse. Hence, a pressurised space suit for Felix is a must.

Free fall speeds - Initially there is no air pressure, so it follows that there is no air resistance as well. So, the maximum speeds can be attained before air resistance starts slowing him down. According to the team's estimates on their blog, Felix will reach the supersonic speeds approximately 27-32km above the surface (around 30 seconds into the jump). To put it in perspective (although this speed is not hard to visualise) the Concorde aircraft had a top speed of about Mach 2 (2,179kmph).

The dangers of this dive, perhaps just to name a few are - blood could boil, balloon could stress, winds could blow him off course, uncontrollable spins could happen, unknown effects of crossing the speed of sound, the sonic boom - as described by National Geographic here.

UPDATE: The conditions on the ground are good, but they are waiting for winds at 700ft to die down.

OK, so that's the altitude, temperature, pressure, speed and the risks. That should about all I wanted to say. Please also follow the links above for interesting reads related to these, which are also my sources. What can I say - I'm a PhD student, I feel my article would have been incomplete if I did not list my references! :-)

Eagerly awaiting the skydive/spacedive now!


Balloon is now being inflated, capsule will be suspended from the balloon.

The balloon, I learn from the feed, is just 1/1000th of an inch -10 times thinner than a sandwich bag!

Balloon is fully inflated, winds are dying down fast, and launch is expected shortly, standing by.

Lift-off! He's at 7,500ft above MSL now.

Now past Mount Everest's altitude (8,848m) and the tropopause. Amazing views!

Coincidentally, I just learnt, it was on this very day 65 years ago (Oct 14, 1947) that Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier (in an aircraft, of course!)

Past passenger aircraft cruise altitudes.

Outside temperature is below -65C.

Hmmm....long way to go, will play a few Temple Run (Brave) games on my phone and listen to the live feed.

At the Armstrong line/limit: 63,000ft. This is the point at which the pressure is so low (1/16 atm) a human would not last long without a pressurised suit or cabin, because the body fluids (tears, saliva, etc.) apparently boil away otherwise!

76,000ft - They say you can see the earth's curvature from up here and the inky black sky.

85,000ft - The point of the highest aircraft/weather balloons

97,000ft - Felix's previous highest jump altitude

102,800ft - Joe Kittinger's record jump, i.e. past the highest ever skydive.

113,740ft - Past the 1961 record for highest manned balloon flight by Malcolm Ross and Victor Prather. Tragically, Prather had drowned during helicopter transfer after landing.

At float altitude, ~128,000ft. All points on the checklist covered. Confirmed - it's a go!

Capsule depressurised, door opens. wow! What a sight!

Free fall, not quite breaking Joe's record for longest, but definitely highest.

Parachute deployed.

Touchdown! Brilliant!! Congrats to Felix Baumgartner and the Red Bull Stratos team!!


  1. didn't that seem like he was jumping from moon?

    1. Haha, with those views of the inky black sky, the curvature of the earth, and the space suit, yeah!