Red Bull Delays Man’s Highest Sky Dive Due to Weather – For Now

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Today was to be the day that Felix Baumgartner jumped into the record books as the man who jumped from the edges of space and higher than any human has ever jumped before. It was not to be as winds scrubbed the mission more than six years in the making.

In a test jump, Felix Baumgartner gets accustomed to his high-pressure suit. Photo: Red Bull Stratos

Almost three years ago I wrote about the upcoming leap. At the time, team sponsors, scientists and principles at Red Bull had not announced a date for the jump but they anticipated it would be sometime in 2010. Something this technical was sure to experience delays (some nearly had to be resolved in court), but today it came down to gusty winds and a small window of opportunity that was missed.

Tomorrow the team will begin the launch procedures again and, like today, all eyes will be on the weather forecast. And that means on-site meteorologist Don Day will provide the information needed to make the go/no-go decision to begin the last few hours of a multi-year, multi-million dollar operation. How critical is the weather? If the winds are more than 3 miles per hour the launch is delayed, and if Meteorologist Day does not expect winds of 3 mph or less, the launch will be scrubbed until favorable winds are expected — as is the case today. And it’s not just 3 miles per hour at the surface, but up to 800 feet above the surface as the balloon and more than 200 feet of tether to the capsule must be able to extend to near vertical before launching is approved. Obviously, a gentle launch is best and the lesser the wind the better. Having watched the livestream today, I’ll guess the midday winds appeared to gust to 20 miles per hour. The balloon and its cargo can handle strong winds once off the ground, but winds again become a concern at the border of the stratosphere where turbulence is common.

A radiosonde balloon is readied for launch. Photo: Red Bull Stratos

Other weather features are a concern, as well. The view of the open sky cannot be more than 50% covered by clouds and the horizontal visibility must be three miles or greater in order to comply with FAA regulations. Additional concerns lie with the temperature, specifically high altitude temperatures as the speed of sound is temperature-dependent and, therefore, the colder the better if the Baumgartner team wants a successful supersonic freefall.

In addition to computer models, his anemometer and his experienced view of the sky, Meteorologist Day will rely on a combination of weather balloons to help with the launch decision. One balloon is a PIBAL (pilot balloon) or ceiling balloon which is typically released into the sky to calculate winds and cloud bases but in this case several will be tethered together to indicate wind speed and the presence of a cross wind with altitude.

A second tethered balloon, an aerostat balloon, will be tethered at 800 feet to measure wind and temperature at the top of the fully extended ground-based lift balloon. The third type of balloon is the radiosonde balloon. This balloon will lift weather monitoring equipment into the atmosphere and radio the gathered information back to Earth at prescribed altitudes. Radiosondes are launched from hundreds of sites twice daily around the world to feed numerical modeling computers, and with a radiosonde site at Roswell this critical information from potentially* as high as 120,000 feet (the height of Baumgartner’s jump) will be radioed back to Meteorologist Day.

What is the forecast for tomorrow? With such a critical (and low) wind threshold for launch, there’s no way for anyone but the on-site meteorologist to provide the most accurate information, but the team today is preparing for a Wednesday launch; winds will be most calm at dawn.

You can watch the livestream feed here. If it’s like today, they’ll turn the feed on one hour before launch.

USAF Colonel Joseph Kittenger and Felix Baumgartner. Col. Kittinger currently holds the record when he jumped from 102,800 in 1960. Today Kittinger advises Baumgartner and is the controller for all communications – CAPCOM, in NASA-speak – with the airborne Baumgartner. AP Photo

Godspeed, Felix Baumgartner.

Update: Winds on Wednesday will not be favorable for a launch attempt. As of late Tuesday there is no announced date for the next attempt.

* Potentially 120,000 feet? It can go even higher. The gas contained within a radiosonde balloon will expand with altitude and eventually cause the balloon to burst. Since expansion is based on variable items such as temperature and air density (and the type of gas), the height of the disintegration is also variable. A radiosonde balloon can expand by as much as 100x before bursting.

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