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Monday
Oct152012

"Live from space! World, you are beautiful": The Physics of Felix

by Sarah Scoles

 

Sunday morning, an Austrian man named Felix Baumgartner jumped out of a balloon--a balloon that had ascended into the stratosphere. He went faster than the speed of sound and didn't freeze his face, boil his blood, or smash his bones on the hard, hard ground.

I casually kept up with Felix I-drink-a-lot-of-Red-Bull-and-then-Break-Things-like-Mach-1 Baumgartner's antics, but once his feet were back in Roswell (his ascent and landing location), I wanted to know more about the details of his just-under-space flight.

Video of the jump

Red Bull Stratos Team site

Best quote: "Live from space! World, you are beautiful."

 

And first place in the Halloween costume goes to Baumgartner (Credit: Redbull Stratos).

 

Here's what I found out:

The Suit

  • Both before and during the launch, Felix breathed pure oxygen through the helmet's regulator. The oxygen sources were liquefied on the ground and during the balloon ride and were SCUBA-style high-pressure tanks during the descent.

  • The suit cost $200,000, or the same as the cost of a future flight on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo. Which makes me think, "Well, to protect myself from a sure fall out of SpaceShipTwo, I would need to spend twice the cost of my ticket."

  • The outer layer insulates the body against extreme temperatures (he encountered temperatures as low as -76F), and the inner layer is filled with pressurized oxygen.

  • A drogue parachute was set to automatically deploy if it detected a force 3.5 times the force of gravity for more than 6 seconds, which would have meant that he was spinning around so fast for so long that he would probably be unconscious and unable to pull his own chute. Turns out, he did go into a flat spin, but not for long or hard enough to trigger this emergency mechanism.

 

The Capsule

  • To be carried into the stratosphere, Felix wore the suit into a capsule that was attached to a gigantic balloon and was carried, you know, way up.

  • The capsule was 11 feet tall and 8 feet across, also known as "let's add claustrophobia to the list of things Felix needs to fear."

  • It was fiberglass with an internal metal frame and based on Apollo rockets.

  • Scientists who worked on it also worked on military stealth bombers. We are all glad they have turned to peaceful, high-profile pursuits.

The Balloon

  • The balloon, under which the capsule (in which Felix sat) sat, was 55 stories tall and, when fully inflated, had a volume of 30 million cubic feet--the equivalent of 340 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

    Red Bull...gives you balloons? (Credit: Red Bull).
  • Despite how the balloon is only 0.0008 inches thick (the same as ~3 human hairs), it is so big that it manages to weigh 3,708 pounds.

  • And despite how it was going to take a man miles and miles above the Earth, it could only take off if the wind was blowing at 2 or fewer mph.

  • It took the balloon 3 hours to get to the required height.

  • The balloon cost multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the helium to launch it cost $60,000-$70,000. I hope Felix is sending a thank-you card to Red Bull.

 

The Height

The MFA in me really loves the word "stratopause" (Credit: Windows2Universe).

The balloon ultimately took Felix 128,000 feet up, or about 24 miles.

That elevation put him firmly in the stratosphere, where the temperature is about 30F. If that seems pretty hot for the atmosphere, you're right--in this atmospheric layer, when you go higher, the temperature also gets higher. It's called "temperature inversion," and it starts happening at the tropopause (7 miles up), as you can see in the image below, and continues until about 31 miles up. Temperature inversion occurs because ozone molecules in this layer absorb the Sun's UV energy and radiate heat back into the atmosphere.

 You can calculate the distance that a person can see from a given height (or how far away the horizon is) using the formula sqrt(height^2+2*height*earth's radius). This formula is based on drawing lines from you to the horizon, from you to the center of the Earth--that makes a right triangle. It is all because of Pythagorus that we can calculate that Felix could see sqrt((24 miles)^2+2(24 miles)(3950 miles)) OR 436 miles in one direction.

 

The Drop

  • Felix's top speed was 833.9 mph, or 61% as fast as a Concorde jet, and 1.24 times the speed of sound.
  • For 4 minutes and 20 seconds of the jump (or about half of it), he was in free-fall, which means that his weight (mass combined with gravity) was the only force acting on him. That's not precisely true because air resistance was pushing him up while gravity was pulling him down. However, up in the stratosphere, there's not a whole lot of air molecules (thus the spacesuit, etc.). That, plus a streamlined body position that minimized the amount of bodily surface area hitting the "air," was what allowed him to reach such ungodly speeds. The air resistance, which increases the faster you travel, normally comes to equal the force of gravity and thus stops acceleration--not so when there's virtually no air.
  • The low density of molecules at this height also allowed him to break the sound barrier without being hurt by his own shock waves, which, since they didn't involve many molecules, were puny.

The Body

  • At about 63,000 feet in elevation, one encounters Armstrong's Line. Here, if your bodily fluids come into contact with the atmosphere, the water vapor in your fluids will begin to bubble out of them. At this height, water boils at just 98.6F, which, if you recall anything from biology, is your body temperature. However, your pesky skin and organs don't just let those bubbles out, which means that the internal body pressure rises as more water turns to water vapor. This is called "ebullism," and Felix could have fallen prey to it had his fancy suit not worked. It could have made his eyes pop out, literally, as pressure behind them increased.

    This dog was actually the first one to ride a balloon to the stratosphere, but no one cared because he wasn't sponsored by Red Bull and also because he fell prey to ebullism (Credit: Shutterstock).
  • Felix breathed pure oxygen for two hours prior to launch so that the nitrogen would get out of his blood, so he wouldn't get "the bends," or decompression sickness, which is a term familiar to SCUBA divers. In addition to water in your bodily fluids, there are also other gases (mostly nitrogen). According to Henry's Law, when a gas is dissolved a liquid, and the pressure of the gas is decreased--as it is when you ride in a balloon capsule to the top of the world--, the amount of that gas that is dissolved will also decrease. And when the gas stops being dissolved, it doesn't just disappear. It stays in your body. And kills you. Or makes your joints sore. Depending.

 

The Implications for The Future

Red Bull claims that this was a scientific investigation, in addition to a giant publicity stunt and a way for Felix to become the Justin Bieber of skydiving. The scientific goals for the mission were

  • To investigate the medical treatment necessary when a person is exposed to such low pressures, low temperatures, and high speeds. The "Stratos Team" developed an emergency protocol, which as far as I know is not public but perhaps will be soon."
  • To know what is necessary to be safe if you suddenly find yourself sans aircraft 24 miles in the air. With the advent of commercial space flight UPON US (hopefully), it's important to know whether or not those who paid $200,000 to go way up, only to encounter disaster, could bail out and go way down way quickly, if need be. What would passengers need to wear over their very expensive space polos? Is it dangerous to go faster than sound? Could a parachute save the day? NASA apparently plans to use Felix's and his team's "research" to design spacesuits that are meant for escaping spacecraft in the stratosphere. Rest easy. 

Look into my eyes and tell me you don't want to jump with me (Credit: Red Bull).But of all the records broken (highest manned balloon ride, fastest free fall, highest free fall, first to break the speed of sound with his own body, most serious camera gaze) The most important record broken during this stunt: YouTube's record for simultaneous live streams. Felix had 8 million people watching during its peak. And, as always on YouTube, I'm sure they left very intelligent comments.

 

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