Capsule and Balloon Recovery

16 October 2012

At nearly 30 million cubic feet / 849.505 cubic meters, the balloon that took Felix Baumgartner to his record-breaking jump altitude of 128,100 feet / 39.045 meters was three times larger than the biggest balloon ever to have ascended with a human aboard. The tiny capsule beneath it, which took five years to develop, carried not only Baumgartner, but valuable data capture equipment.


With the mission complete, how did the balloon and capsule return to earth, and what happened to them?

Once Baumgartner had safely jumped and the Mission Control team determined that the balloon and capsule were over a suitable open area, Mission Control remotely triggered the release of the capsule from the balloon.

The capsule parachute, which had been incorporated in the ‘flight train’ between the capsule and the balloon, immediately deployed. ‘Reefing’ (restraining) fabric around the circumference of the parachute held it to 17 feet / 5 meters in diameter for the initial part of the descent, allowing it to fall quickly (about 2,000 feet  / 610 meters per minute). At an altitude of 20,000 feet 6.096 meters, the reefing was automatically released by a barometric sensor, allowing the canopy to expand to its full 100 feet / 30 meters in diameter so that the capsule would descend more slowly (estimated about 6 meters per second) with a minimum of swaying. Its descent took about 24 minutes.

The capsule’s landing in a flat, open area just over 55 miles / 88 kilometers due east from the launch site was gentle - under 3 Gs - so soft that the impact displaced only about 30 percent of the crush pad material incorporated to absorb the force. The capsule softly rolled onto its back, with Baumgartner’s door facing the sky.

According to design, as the capsule fell away from the balloon in the stratosphere, a cable tore a ‘gore’ (panel) from the balloon, releasing its (nontoxic) helium. The empty plastic envelope fell to earth, passing the capsule and landing about 15 minutes later about 7 miles / 11 kilometers west of the capsule.

A crew of twelve personnel were waiting to recover the equipment. Together they formed a convoy of five trucks and an all-terrain vehicle. Thanks to the flight path predictions of meteorologist Don Day, visual tracking via ground-based optical systems, and GPS trackers, the team was within 300 yards of the capsule when it landed.

The team believes they heard Baumgartner break the sound barrier as they waited for the equipment to descend. “We heard a sound like a sonic boom,” said capsule crew chief Jon Wells. “A lot of us are from aerospace backgrounds and we looked at each other, practically in disbelief. We know that sound.”

On arriving at the capsule, the team first shut off the liquid oxygen and liquid nitrogen systems. Wells took photos of the ‘switchology’ – the switch configuration of Baumgartner’s instrumentation and the oxygen and nitrogen quantities and pressure, to document the exact configuration at landing.

Next, the crew shut down the capsule’s system of 15 cameras and retrieved the camera data. Then the crew from Sage Cheshire Aerospace, which built the capsule, completed the final step by shutting down the rest of the systems and overall capsule power.

Next up was balloon retrieval. The crew drove the 7 miles / 11 kilometers to the balloon and managed to wrangle the unwieldy 40 acres of material weighing 3,708 pounds / 1682 kilograms into a large open truck within about 45 minutes.

Mission accomplished, the capsule and balloon crews arrived back at the Roswell launch site with the equipment at about 5:00 pm local time, seven and a half hours after Baumgartner’s takeoff, and about 21 hours after most of the crew had arrived at the airfield to begin launch preparations the night before.

The capsule and the balloon envelope are being returned via ground to the mission’s technical hub at Sage Cheshire Aerospace in Lancaster, California. While some of the camera data was downloaded immediately in Roswell, more will be extracted at FlightLine Films in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Temperature, pressure, and other data from the capsule recorders will be analyzed for months to come, and the information will be shared with the science community. The vessel itself will be saved for posterity.

“Joe Kittinger’s gondola in 1960 was like a Model T – practical and very durable,” Wells comments. “With very sophisticated, sensitive equipment and all the ‘luxuries’ of cutting-edge technology, our Red Bull Stratos capsule was more like a modern supercar. From every standpoint, including a technical one, it really did its job.”

Product Title
Capsule and Balloon Recovery
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17.Oct 2012
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