• Skydiver breaks sound barrier in record space jump


    LOS ANGELES: Daredevil Felix Baumgartner has made a record-breaking leap from the edge of space, landing safely in the New Mexico desert after freefalling from more than 39 kilometres above the Earth.

    The 43-year-old floated down to Earth on a red and white parachute canopy, which he had opened after reaching an unofficial speed of 1137km/h in freefall.

    Mission control erupted in cheers as Baumgartner made a near-perfect jump from a capsule hoisted aloft by a giant helium-filled balloon to an altitude of 128,097 feet (39.043km).

    Baumgartner broke the sound barrier during his jump, but he did not set a new record for the longest freefall, a mission spokeswoman said.


    The Austrian achieved the fastest ever freefall speed during the four minutes and 19 seconds of descent, spokeswoman Sarah Anderson said.

    He was bidding to break records set over 50 years ago by Joseph Kittinger, now a retired US Air Force colonel who made a freefall jump from 102,800 feet (31,333 metres) in 1960. Kittinger was part of Baumgartner's back-up team.

    Citing preliminary figures, she said the whole jump lasted nine minutes and three seconds, including four minutes and 44 seconds after he deployed his parachute to float down to earth in the New Mexico desert.

    Baumgartner had hoped to be in freefall for more than five minutes before opening his chute, and had also expected to jump from a lower altitude - 120,000 feet. But the balloon went higher than expected.

    The reason for the shorter than expected freefall was not immediately clear, although live commentary during the unprecedented leap suggested he opened his parachute at an altitude above the 5000-feet level announced in advance.

    Baumgartner had taken more than two hours to get up to the jump altitude.

    The Red Bull Stratos mission was the second attempt for the skydiver after an initial bid last week was aborted at the last minute due to winds.

    The biggest risk Baumgartner faced was spinning out of control, which could exert G forces and make him lose consciousness. A controlled dive from the capsule was essential, putting him in a head-down position to increase speed.

    More gruesomely, the skydiver's blood could have boiled if there were the slightest tear or crack in his pressurized spacesuit-like outfit, due to instant depressurization at the extreme altitude.

    Temperatures of -68 degrees could also have had unpredictable consequences if his suit somehow failed.

    The leap went off flawlessly, though there was a minor problem as the capsule ascended: a heater failed on Baumgartner's helmet faceplate, meaning it was becoming fogged up when he exhaled.

    After considering the options they decided to go ahead with the jump.

    Baumgartner's 100-strong back-up team included retired US Air Force colonel Kittinger.

    "Let the guardian angel take care of you," Kittinger told Baumgartner shortly before he leapt into the void.

    The giant balloon - which holds 30 million cubic feet of helium - was needed to carry the Red Bull Stratos capsule, which weighs nearly 1300kg, to the stratosphere.

    It is made of near transparent polyethylene strips even thinner than a dry-cleaner bag, which are heat-sealed together. Very thin material is necessary to save weight.

    The Austrian had been training for five years for the jump. He holds several previous records, notably with spectacular base jumps from the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur and the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

    Speaking before the launch, Baumgartner said he would be proud to be the first person to break the speed of sound in freefall.

    "But really, I know that part of this entire experience will help make the next pressure suit safer for space tourists and aviators," the jumper pointed out.

    Sunday's launch coincided with the 65th anniversary of American pilot Chuck Yeager breaking the speed of sound.

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