Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner, 43, has lifted off on his quest to make the highest, fastest and longest ever freefall jump. He aims to break a high altitude parachute jump record held by his current project adviser Joe Kittinger from 1960. Kittinger jumped from a balloon flying at 102,800 feet and fell for 4 minutes and 36 seconds before opening his parachute. Baumgartner is hoping to beat that with a jump from 120,000 feet and freefall for 5 minutes and 35 seconds. The lack of air at the altitude the skydiver will jump from means that he will probably travel faster than sound – which moves over 690mph – as he falls.
There are a great many risks involved in the Austrian’s project, and others who have attempted to break these records have tragically died in the process. At the altitude Baumgartner will be jumping from, the air pressure is less than 2% of what it is at sea level, and temperatures could be as low as minus 57 degrees celsius. There is the danger that the skydiver’s supersonic body will trigger shock waves that could collide with the force of an explosion, although medical teams say this is unlikely.
Engineers have been working with Baumgartner and his team to ensure his safety. They have built him a special pressurised capsule to carry him aloft under the balloon. He will also be wearing a full-pressure suit, an evolution of the orange protective clothing worn by shuttle astronauts on launch. Engineers have also included an automatic device in Baumgartner’s gear that will release a drogue parachute should there be any problems.
The project’s sponsor Red Bull said that it believed that the jump would aid engineers working on spacesuits for NASA, as well as their research into the commercial space tourism industry. A subsidiary of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group hopes to begin passenger suborbital spaceflights within the next two years.
The ascent began from New Mexico at 16.31 (GMT) and will last around 2.5 hours, meaning that the jump should take place around 19.00 (GMT). It will be broadcast live on Red Bull’s website.
Sources include: BBC News, The Independent
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