So where have we seen this before?
Science fiction may well become reality with the development of a real life Iron Man suit that would allow astronauts or extreme thrill seekers to space dive from up to 62 miles (100 km) above the Earth‘s surface at the very edge of space, and safely land using thruster boots instead of a parachute. Hi-tech inventors over at Solar System Express (Sol-X) and biotech designers Juxtopia LLC (JLLC) are collaborating on this project with a goal of releasing a production model of such a suit by 2016. The project will use a commercial space suit to which will be added augmented reality (AR) goggles, jet packs, power gloves and movement gyros.
Déjà vu anyone?
So where have we seen this before? If you are a Trekker, you will remember the scenes from 2009’s Star Trek (The Future Begins) where James T. Kirk, Hikaru Sulu and Chief Engineer Olson performed a space dive to the Narada’s drill platform. They jumped from a shuttle craft above planet Vulcan wearing high tech suits and used parachutes to land on the rig. “Super” Trekkers will also know about the space dive scene cut from the 1998 Star Trek Generations movie and the holodeck simulated “orbital skydiving” in Star Trek Voyager (Episode 5×03), also in 1998.
More recently the Iron Man movies have highlighted Tony Stark, a fictional comic book hero, who invents and uses a powered exoskeleton-like armor that defines him as the super hero “Iron Man.” The key elements of Stark’s suit are the jets situated in the boots and the repulsors located in the gauntlets. The repulsors in the 2008 movie are used as a form of propulsion and as steering jets, though they can also be used offensively. The helmet, with projected holographic heads-up display (HUD) and HAL-like artificial intelligence butler JARVIS (Just a Rather Very Intelligent System), tops off the outfit.
In real life we have Felix Baumgartner, an Austrian skydiver, daredevil and BASE jumper who set a world record for skydiving an estimated 24.24 miles (39 km), reaching a speed of 843.6 mph (1,357.64 km/h), or Mach 1.25, on October 14, 2012. His jump from a helium balloon in the stratosphere set the altitude record for a manned balloon flight, parachute jump from the highest altitude and greatest free fall velocity. His suit was designed to provide protection from temperatures of -90° to +100° F (-68° to 38° C) and was pressurized to 3.5 pounds per square inch or roughly equivalent to the atmospheric pressure at 35,000 feet (10,668 meters).
The challenges of space diving
The scientists and developers at Sol-X and JLLC are working on a suit that will enable space divers to jump from the Kármán line, which lies at an altitude of 62 miles (100 km) above sea level. This will involve descending through the vacuum of space, which is quite a different challenge than a dive that begins in the relative thickness of our planet’s lower atmosphere.
In order to achieve their goals, the team must overcome many technical difficulties. The suit must be protected against hostile temperatures, pressures and lack of oxygen. At the heights involved, low pressure may cause decompression sickness or ebullism. There is also the possibility of a suit breach which would cause the space diver to lose both oxygen and protection. Even though supersonic speeds will be achieved, more oxygen must be carried for a longer descent even if not needed.
The suit must be capable of withstanding the heat of re-entry and supersonic and hypersonic shock waves. Furthermore, G-forces are also in play. As the space diver slices through the thin atmosphere to the denser air below, it is possible they would experience positive or negative G-forces from 2-8, which may cause pressure-related complications or even black-outs. Spinning out of control, which actually occurred for roughly 10 seconds during Felix Baumgartner’s descent, can cause blood to pool in the extremities, possibly causing hemorrhages or unconsciousness.
RL MARK VI Space Diving Suit
According to Sol-X, its RL MARK VI Space Diving Suit would allow high-altitude jumps from near-space, suborbital space, and eventually low-Earth orbit itself. The acronym RL recognizes Major Robert Lawrence (RL) from the United States Air Force. He was America’s first African-American astronaut and was killed on December 8th, 1967 in a test flight at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
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