January 22, 2010

Extreme Skydiver Will Attempt To Break The Speed Of Sound

Felix Baumgartner, an Austrian extreme sportsman, said his next goal is to try to break the long-standing record for the highest ever parachute jump, BBC News reported.

American Joe Kittinger made history by leaping from a balloon at 102,800ft some 50 years ago and many have sought to repeat the feat over the years but all have failed.

Baumgartner now plans to skydive from a balloon sent to at least 120,000 ft. The daredevil is famous for stunts such as jumping off the Petronas Towers.

He could even be the first person to exceed the speed of sound without the aid of a machine, as it is likely that in his long freefall of more than five minutes he will reach such a speed.

"One of the unknowns is how a human body will react approaching supersonic speed. The effects of the transition from subsonic through transonic to supersonic velocity and back again are not known. This is just one of the things we'll learn," he told BBC.

The project will gather scientific data about the stratosphere and how the body copes with the extreme conditions so high above the Earth's surface, according to Baumgartner and his supporters.

Frenchman Michel Fournier made the most recent attempt to try to better Kittinger's mark in 2008, but the former paratrooper and adventurer had spent years preparing for "Le Grand Saut", or Big Jump, only to see his balloon break free and float off into the sky just as he was about to climb inside the ascent capsule.

Baumgartner's base-jumping - the highly dangerous practice of parachuting from buildings - has frequently incurred the ire of the authorities in several countries. In 2003, he also made headlines when he crossed the English Channel on a carbon wing strapped to his back.

His attempt at breaking Kittinger's record is likely to take place later this year over an as yet unnamed location in North America.

Baumgartner will ascend to the stratosphere in a pressurized capsule attached to a high-altitude helium balloon, and then jump out at an altitude he hopes will exceed 120,000ft.

For protection he will don a specially modified full-pressure suit and helmet, which organizers of the project say should help him to break the speed of sound about 35 seconds into his descent.

A key objective for Baumgartner must be to try to maintain a correct attitude during the descent and prevent his body from going into a spin and blacking out, not to mention coping with freezing temperatures and ultra-thin air.

"Looking at the bigger picture, it's clear that we have a unique opportunity to support science in a very specific field," he said.

Baumgartner said it might even one day be possible to bring astronauts home safely from space if their spacecraft malfunctions.

"It sounds like a sci-fi scenario, but aeronautics is definitely moving in that direction," he added.