Google Exec Hands Silicon Valley the Stratospheric Jump Record

Just a little over two years since Felix Baumgartner broke USAF Colonel Joseph Kittinger’s stratospheric jump record, Alan Eustace from Google has independently smashed the high altitude skydiving record again. This brings home to Silicon Valley a record that might stand for a while. Eustace took a minimalist approach to the jump. His setup involved a helium filled balloon and just him hanging from the balloon in a spacesuit. Pure and simple, this permitted his system to reach 135,890 feet above the Earth, over 41 kilometers altitude, exceeding Baumgartner’s record by 7000 feet.

The simple design of his balloon launch might remind one of a bungy jump. This one maxed out at 822 mph and created a sonic boom. How can anyone break his record now? Can someone rise to a higher altitude? What is next for the Google high flyers? Will Baumgartner take this as a challenge to retake the record?

Balloon preparations for Alan Eustace's record flight at the Roswell airport in the early morning hours of Ocotber 24, 2014. (Credit: Paragon Space Development Corporation)
Balloon preparations for Alan Eustace’s record flight at the Roswell airport in the early morning hours of October 24, 2014. (Credit: Paragon Space Development Corporation)

The 57 year old Alan Eustace is a Senior Vice President at Google in its Knowledge department. He is a licensed pilot but not known for undertaking extraordinary feats of daredevil. Eustace grew up in Florida and recalls that his childhood was filled with trips to Cape Canaveral for NASA launches. Not a spur of the moment undertaking, Eustace had dreamt of accomplishing this feat and record for some time.

This is the third successful balloon skydiving jump from over 100,000 feet. All three have been accomplished from Roswell, New Mexico. Kittinger’s was in 1961, Baumgartner in 2012, and now Eustace in 2014. A fourth jump was undertaken in 1966 from a height of 123,000 feet but ended in failure and the death of the skydiver, Nicholas Piantanida.

The trip to the upper heights of the atmosphere took two hours. All this time he was forced to hang very still to avoid over-heating. His spacesuit had minimal ability to cool his body during the ascent. While the stratosphere reaches temperatures of 100 below zero, the atmosphere is exceedingly thin and body heat has no way to radiate away.

Eustace as he appeared in the first moments of his ascent. He maintained this posture throughout the 2 hour flight. (Credit: Paragon Space Development Corporation)
Eustace as he appeared in the first moments of his ascent. He maintained this posture throughout the 2 hour flight. (Credit: Paragon Space Development Corporation)

Without a capsule like Baumgartner and Kittinger before him, he relied solely on a spacesuit custom built by Paragon Space Development Corporation, a designer of life support devices. The simple design exceeded Baumgartner by over 7000 feet, nearly a mile and a half more. Eustace’s new record is approaching the maximum that has ever been achieved by any lighter than air craft, manned or unmanned.

The unmanned high altitude record for balloon flight was set in 2002 from Sanriku Balloon Center at Ofunato City, Iwate in Japan. This record stands at 173,900 feet. So there is plenty of room for record breaking but it will require pushing the limits of technology. In this day and age, there are many keen to push technological limits.

Alan Eustace now joins Google execs in high profile flight. H211 L.L.C. operates a Dornier Alpha Jet, owned and used by Mr. Page, Mr. Brin and the chief executive, Eric Schmidt, since 2007. The Alpha Jet is seen being taxiied on the Moffett field runway in Mountain View, CA. Insets show an Alpha in flight and Hangar One (a former Dirigble hangar from the 1930s) which H211 is planning to refurbish for NASA and to house their fleet of jets including the Alpha. (Credit: U.T./TRR)
Alan Eustace now joins Google execs in high profile flight. H211 L.L.C. operates a Dornier Alpha Jet, owned and used by Mr. Page, Mr. Brin, and the chief executive, Eric Schmidt, since 2007. The Alpha Jet is seen taxiing on the Moffett field tarmac in Mountain View, CA. Insets show an Alpha in flight and Hangar One (a former Dirigible hangar from the 1930s) which H211 is planning to refurbish for NASA and to house their fleet of jets including the Alpha. (Credit: U.T./TRR)

Google execs are no strangers to high flying. At Moffett Field in Mountain View, California, just a couple of miles from executive headquarters of Google, a small group of executives utilize a German made Dornier Alpha jet. Collaboratively with NASA Ames, the jet is flown by the execs and other experienced pilots to study the upper atmosphere and quite possibly to take in the views around the San Francisco bay area. They are often seen making touch n’ go’s at Moffett to maintain skills and certification. Google, the corporation, clearly showed its interest in space applications with the purchase of Skybox, a microsatellite builder, in June of this year for a reported $500 million.

Reference:

Paragon StratEx Team

On The Hunt For High-Altitude Microorganisms

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The United States Rocket Academy has announced an open call for entries in its High Altitude Astrobiology Challenge, a citizen science project that will attempt to collect samples of microbes that may be lurking in Earth’s atmosphere at the edge of space.

Earth’s biosphere has been discovered to extend much higher than once thought — up to 100,000 feet (30,480 meters) above the planet’s surface. Any microorganisms present at these high altitudes could be subject to the mutating effects of increased radiation and transported around the globe in a sort of pathogenic jet-stream.

What sort of microbes may exist at the upper reaches of the atmosphere?

Citizens in Space, a project run by the U.S. Rocket Academy, is offering a $10,000 prize for the development of an open-source and replicable  collection device that could successfully retrieve samples of high-altitude microorganisms, and could fly as a payload aboard an XCOR Lynx spacecraft.

XCOR Aerospace is a private California-based company that has developed the Lynx, a reusable launch vehicle that has suborbital flight capabilities. Low-speed test flights are expected to commence later this year, with incremental testing to take place over the following months.

Any proposed microbe collection devices would have to fit within the parameters of the Lynx’s 2kg Aft Cowling Port payload capabilities — preferably a 10 x 10 x 20 cm CubeSat volume — and provide solutions for either its retraction (in the case of extended components) or retrieval (in the case of ejected hardware.)

The contest is open to any US resident or non-government team or organization, and submissions are due by February 13, 2013. The chosen design will fly on 10 contracted Lynx flights in late 2013 or early 2014, and possibly even future missions.

Find out more about the challenge on the Citizens in Space site here, and check out an animation of the XCOR Lynx spacecraft below:

The Awesome Complexity of Hypersonic Flight


Researchers at Stanford University are working on solutions to the inherent difficulties of hypersonic flight — speeds of over Mach 5, or 3,000 mph (4828 km/h) — and they’ve created one amazing computer model illustrating the dynamics of air temperature variations created at those intense speeds.

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According to a news article from Stanford University, “Real-world laboratories can only go so far in reproducing such conditions, and test vehicles are rendered extraordinarily vulnerable. Of the U.S. government’s three most recent tests, two ended in vehicle failure.”

The video above shows some of the research team’s animation model — one of if not the largest engineering calculation ever created, it ran on 163,000 processors simultaneously and took 4 days to complete! And it’s utterly mesmerizing… not to mention invaluable to researchers.

“It’s something you could never have created unless you put computer scientists, mathematicians, mechanical engineers and aerospace engineers together in the same room,” said Juan Alonso, associate  professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford. “Do it, though, and you can produce some really magical results.”

In a (very tiny) nutshell, the behavior of air through an hypersonic engine — called a scramjet (for supersonic combustion ramjet) — changes at extremely high speeds. In order for aircraft to travel and maneuver reliably the scramjets have to be engineered to account for the way the air will respond.

“If you put too much fuel in the engine when you try to start it, you get a phenomenon called ‘thermal choking,’ where shock waves propagate back through the engine,” explained Parviz Moin, the Franklin P. and Caroline M. Johnson Professor in the School of Engineering. “Essentially, the engine doesn’t get enough oxygen and it dies. It’s like trying to light a match in a hurricane.”

“Understanding and being able to predict this phenomena has been one of the big challenges. It’s not one number or two numbers that come out of it at the end of the day… it is all of these structures that you see back there, the richness of it. It is understanding that allows you to control.”
– Parvis Moin, Stanford University professor

Thanks to this study, made possible by a 5-year $20 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, we may one day have aircraft that can travel up to 15 times the speed of sound. But the team’s groundbreaking computations aren’t just reserved for aeronautic aspirations.

“These same technologies can be used to quantify flow of air around wind farms, for example, or for complex global climate models,” said Alonso.

Read more on the Stanford University News here.

Video by Steve Fyffe and Linda Cicero. Source: Stanford University.

Will the Dream of a Flying Car Finally Become a Reality?

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We’ve all dreamed of having a flying car, but two companies are working to make this dream a reality. The latest in flying car designs is the Personal Air and Land Vehicle (PAL-V) One, which is advertised as going from high performance sports car to flying car in just minutes. Based in the Netherlands, the PAL-V company says this is “the ultimate vehicle to go wherever and whenever you want to, easily overcoming all sorts of barriers. Now you can leave home and fly-drive to almost any destination! Avoid traffic jams and cross lakes, fjords, rivers or mountain ranges like an eagle.”

Sign me up!

See a video of the PAL-V in flight, below.

While the PAL-V is designed more like a helicopter, another flying car prototype we reported on, the Terrafugia Transition, operates more like a airplane. Terrafugia recently completed its first test flight, and sells for about $250,000. The PAL-V One does not yet have listed price, but likely would be in a similar price range. Both companies hope to bring their products to market soon, with Terrafugia targeting a late 2012 release date, and PAL-V aiming for 2014.

PAL-V uses gyroplane technology for flying, with rotors that fold up when you want to drive the vehicle on land. It can fly to an altitude of 4,000 feet (considerably lower than the 30,000 to 50,000 feet where commercial jets fly), and owners would need to have a Sport Pilot’s certificate in order to fly the PAL-V One.

For more info, see the PAL-V website.

Iran Claims They’ve Built a Flying Saucer

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Iran’s Fars News Agency revealed that the country has built an unmanned flying saucer, named “Zohal” (Saturn in Persian) which will be used for various missions including aerial imaging. UPDATE: thanks to reader Robert McCelland, we now have an actual picture of the Zohal instead of the hoaky flying saucer image that was included in the Fars article (see below). It is not really all that big — more like a remote controlled toy helicopter — but reportedly the Zohal is equipped with an auto-pilot system, GPS and two separate imaging systems with full HD 10 mega-pixel picture quality and is able to take and send images simultaneously. It was unveiled in a ceremony attended by Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei at an exhibition of strategic technologies.

No detailed specifications were supplied such as exact size and flight capabilities, (except that it can fly vertically) but the report said it could fly both indoors and outside.

The craft was designed and developed jointly by Farnas Aerospace Company and Iranian Aviation and Space Industries Association (IASIA).

The original image on the Fars site:

This image accompanied a news article in Iran about the country's own flying saucer.

Manned Solar Plane Will Attempt Flight Around the World

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A man who circled the globe in a balloon in 1999 has a new global adventure planned. Bertrand Piccard has unveiled a prototype of a solar-powered plane he hopes to fly around the world. Until now, only unmanned solar airplanes have been flown, but Piccard’s HB-SIA would be manned. The glider-like plane has solar panels covering the wings, and the wingspan of the prototype reaches 61m, while the entire vehicle weighs only 1,500 kg. The first tests of the plane will be done to prove it can fly at night. Piccard says he wants to demonstrate the potential of renewable energies.

Piccard just unveiled the prototype, and he hopes to attempt a flight across the Atlantic by 2012.

Solar and battery technology is just now maturing enough to enable solar flight. In 2007 the UK defence company Qinetiq flew an unmanned aerial vehicle called the Zephyr unmanned for 54 continuous hours during tests.

The HB-SIA. Credit: BBC
The HB-SIA. Credit: BBC

But Piccard and his company, Solar Impulse are working on what they believe to be a breakthrough design, using super-efficient solar cells, batteries, motors and propellers to get it through the dark hours and composite materials to keep it extremely light.

Although the vehicle is expected to be capable of flying non-stop around the globe, Piccard will in fact make five long hops, sharing flying duties with project partner Andre Borschberg.

“The aeroplane could do it theoretically non-stop – but not the pilot,” said Piccard told the BBC. “We should fly at roughly 25 knots and that would make it between 20 and 25 days to go around the world, which is too much for a pilot who has to steer the plane. In a balloon you can sleep, because it stays in the air even if you sleep. We believe the maximum for one pilot is five days.”

More info on Solar Impulse.. And just for your interest, here’s an article about the biggest plane in the world.

Source: BBC

Today is Wright Brothers Day

Almost all of us take for granted that we can get to virtually any destination in the world by flying in an airplane. We routinely board an aircraft, grumble at the slightest delay, and complain when we don’t get any peanuts during the flight. But really, we should be amazed in wonderment as each airplane takes off and lands.

It’s almost a miracle: we can sit in a somewhat comfortable chair, sleep, read a book or watch a movie, and three hours later, we’ve flown across the country. And it all began 105 years ago. On December 17, 1903 the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, made the first successful controlled, powered and sustained flight of an aircraft.

Orville flew for 12 seconds, covering 120 feet (36.5m), at a speed of only 6.8 mph from level ground into a cold headwind gusting to 27 miles (43 km) an hour. The flight was recorded in the famous photograph, above. Then, to prove it wasn’t a fluke, they flew two more times: Wilbur flew approximately 175 feet (53 m), and then Orville took the controls again and flew 200 feet (60 m).

Their altitude was about 10 ft above the ground. Although not the first to build and fly experimental aircraft, the Wright brothers were the first to invent aircraft controls – a three-axis control – that made it possible for a pilot to control the aircraft and made fixed wing flight possible.

Every year since 1963 the US Congress proclaims Dec. 17 as Wright Brother’s Day, and the US President signs the proclamation (read below). Here is Orville Wright’s account of the final flight of the day:

“Wilbur started the fourth and last flight at just about 12 o’clock. The first few hundred feet were up and down, as before, but by the time three hundred feet had been covered, the machine was under much better control. The course for the next four or five hundred feet had but little undulation. However, when out about eight hundred feet the machine began pitching again, and, in one of its darts downward, struck the ground. The distance over the ground was measured to be 852 feet (260 m); the time of the flight was 59 seconds. The frame supporting the front rudder was badly broken, but the main part of the machine was not injured at all. We estimated that the machine could be put in condition for flight again in about a day or two.”

The proclamation of Wright Brothers Day :

“Our history is rich with pioneers and innovators who used their God-given talents to improve our Nation and the world. On Wright Brothers Day, we commemorate two brothers, Orville and Wilbur Wright, who took great risks and ushered in a new era of travel and discovery.

With intrepid spirits and a passion for innovation, Orville and Wilbur Wright became the first to experience the thrill of manned, powered flight. On December 17, 1903, Orville Wright flew for 12 seconds over the North Carolina sand dunes in the presence of only five people. In the span of one lifetime, our Nation has seen aviation progress from the first tentative takeoff at Kitty Hawk to an age of supersonic flight and space exploration.

On this Wright Brothers Day, we recognize all those who have taken great risks and contributed to our country’s legacy of exploration and discovery. This year, we also celebrate the centennial of the world’s first passenger flight. By remaining dedicated to extending the frontiers of knowledge, we can ensure that the United States will continue to lead the world in science, innovation, and technology, and build a better future for generations to come.

The Congress, by a joint resolution approved December 17, 1963, as amended (77 Stat. 402; 36 U.S.C. 143), has designated December 17 of each year as “Wright Brothers Day” and has authorized and requested the President to issue annually a proclamation inviting the people of the United States to observe that day with appropriate ceremonies and activities.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim December 17, 2008, as Wright Brothers Day.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this sixteenth day of December, in the year of our Lord two thousand eight, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-third.

GEORGE W. BUSH “