On 14 October 2012, Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner made history as he jumped from a helium balloon more than 39km above the Earth, breaking four world records in the process. One of the primary factors to affect the jump was the weather. It was also one of the most unpredictable and uncontrollable. Last year’s successful jump was not the first attempt, as adverse weather conditions forced it to be rescheduled several times.
In order for the jump to be safe, an extremely precise set of weather conditions were required, which included less than half of the sky obscured by cloud cover, minimal wind speeds, and no precipitation. Don Day, the chief meteorologist of the Baumgartner’s Red Bull Stratos mission, will be visiting the university this month to talk about forecasting for such an extreme event.
As the weather determines the success of the jump, the atmosphere is closely monitored, using state of the art computer models and weather balloons. This allows Day and his team to decide on the best location for the launch, as well as to simulate flight paths and predict the landing point. The wind was one of the most problematic factors, as it could not be more than 3km/h between ground level and an altitude of 250m. An attempt on the 8 October 2012 had to be aborted due to gusting winds.
The balloon used to transport Baumgartner to the stratosphere was made of polyethylene, a high-performance plastic. It was just 0.002mm thick – ten times thinner than an ordinary plastic bag – and was so delicate that it could only be handled by people wearing cotton gloves.
On 14 October the weather conditions were finally right. After a two and a half hour ascent, Baumgartner jumped from a height of over 39km. As he fell back to earth, he reached a maximum speed of 1333km/h and was the first person to break the speed of sound in freefall. Despite spinning out of control at one point, Baumgartner landed safely in the New Mexico desert after nine minutes and three seconds.
More than eight million people from across the world watched the jump live on YouTube, with millions of others taking to social media to express their amazement. The jump was dubbed ‘the mission to the edge of space’, with this type of extreme marketing further establishing Red Bull as a brand who likes to live on the edge. It also provided invaluable data regarding transportation through the stratosphere, as well as improving the safety for space professionals and ‘space tourists’ in the future.
Day’s talk is hosted by the East Anglia branch of the Royal Meteorological Society, and is at 7pm on Wednesday 13 November, in the Thomas Paine lecture theatre. It is free to anyone who wants to attend. For more details, follow the group on Facebook /RMetS.EAnglia and Twitter @RMetS_EAnglia.