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Joseph Kittinger: The First High-Altitude Jumper

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Next week, “Fearless Felix” Baumgartner will attempt the highest, fastest free fall in history when he leaps out of a capsule 23 miles above Roswell, New Mexico wearing just a pressurized suit and helmet. But Baumgartner isn’t the first person to make a crazy jump like this. That distinction belongs to Joseph Kittinger, who made a series of high altitude jumps between 1959 and 1960.

In order to build space capsules that would protect humans at high altitudes, the Air Force needed to know how people would fare many miles above the Earth. So in 1957, they recruited Kittinger—a young jet pilot in the Flight Test Division of the Air Force Missile Development Center—to a pre-Space Age military project called Manhigh. He went through a series of trials, including a 24-hour claustrophobia test in the capsule and a test in the high-altitude, low-temperature test chamber, before the actual mission. On June 2, 1957, Kittinger piloted an aluminum-alloy capsule carried by a balloon to 97,000 feet, setting a balloon altitude record. But Manhigh was just the first step. In Project Excelsior, Kittinger jumped from the capsule, which hovered at the edge of space, three times over the course of two years.

Leaping into the Unknown

The first jump, in November 1959 from 76,400 feet, was almost Kittinger’s last. The sun was blinding despite the negative-104 degree temperature. As Kittinger fell, his helmet nearly lifted off his shoulders, and his pilot chute choked him into a blackout.

Thankfully, his back-up chute opened, and Kittinger survived—and, amazingly, was eager to make the next jump. It occurred just a month later, 74,700 feet above the Jornada del Muerto (which translates to “Route of the Dead Man”). The issues were ironed out, the jump was successful, and Kittinger was ready for the third and final Excelsior mission in August of 1960, from a height of 102,800 feet—more than 19 miles.

His only protection was his pressurized suit, which didn’t totally work. During the ascent, the pressurization in his right glove failed, causing his hand to swell to twice its normal size. Kittinger, however, was determined to make the jump, so he didn’t report his swollen hand until he was at altitude. Falling through 90,000 feet, the skyjumper reached the speed of 614 mph. By the time he touched down, Kittinger held records for the highest balloon ascent, highest parachute jump, longest drogue-fall and fastest speed by a human being through the atmosphere.

And when Baumgartner makes his attempt next week, Kittinger will be there: Not only did he advise Fearless Felix, he’ll serve as CapCom (Capsule Communications) for the mission, and be the only radio contact with Baumgartner during the fall.

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Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Look Up! The Lyrid Meteor Shower Arrives Saturday Night
Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There is a thin line between Saturday night and Sunday morning, but this weekend, look up and you might see several of them. Between 12:01 a.m. on April 21 and dawn on Sunday, April 22, the Lyrid meteor shower will peak over the Northern Hemisphere. Make some time for the celestial show and you'll see a shooting star streaking across the night sky every few minutes. Here is everything you need to know.

WHAT IS THE LYRID METEOR SHOWER?

Every 415.5 years, the comet Thatcher circles the Sun in a highly eccentric orbit shaped almost like a cat's eye. At its farthest from the Sun, it's billions of miles from Pluto; at its nearest, it swings between the Earth and Mars. (The last time it was near the Earth was in 1861, and it won't be that close again until 2280.) That's quite a journey, and more pressingly, quite a variation in temperature. The closer it gets to the Sun, the more debris it sheds. That debris is what you're seeing when you see a meteor shower: dust-sized particles slamming into the Earth's atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour. In a competition between the two, the Earth is going to win, and "shooting stars" are the result of energy released as the particles are vaporized.

The comet was spotted on April 4, 1861 by A.E. Thatcher, an amateur skywatcher in New York City, earning him kudos from the noted astronomer Sir John Herschel. Clues to the comet's discovery are in its astronomical designation, C/1861 G1. The "C" means it's a long-period comet with an orbit of more than 200 years; "G" stands for the first half of April, and the "1" indicates it was the first comet discovered in that timeframe.

Sightings of the Lyrid meteor shower—named after Lyra, the constellation it appears to originate from—are much older; the first record dates to 7th-century BCE China.

HOW CAN I SEE IT?

Saturday night marks a first quarter Moon (visually half the Moon), which by midnight will have set below the horizon, so it won't wash out the night sky. That's great news—you can expect to see 20 meteors per hour. You're going to need to get away from local light pollution and find truly dark skies, and to completely avoid smartphones, flashlights, car headlights, or dome lights. The goal is to let your eyes adjust totally to the darkness: Find your viewing area, lay out your blanket, lay down, look up, and wait. In an hour, you'll be able to see the night sky with great—and if you've never done this before, surprising—clarity. Don't touch the smartphone or you'll undo all your hard ocular work.

Where is the nearest dark sky to where you live? You can find out on the Dark Site Finder map. And because the shower peaks on a Saturday night, your local astronomy club is very likely going to have an event to celebrate the Lyrids. Looking for a local club? Sky & Telescope has you covered.

WHAT ELSE IS GOING ON UP THERE?

You don't need a telescope to see a meteor shower, but if you bring one, aim it south to find Jupiter. It's the bright, unblinking spot in the sky. With a telescope, you should be able to make out its stripes. Those five stars surrounding it are the constellation Libra. You'll notice also four tiny points of light nearby. Those are the Galilean moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. When Galileo discovered those moons in 1610, he was able to prove the Copernican model of heliocentricity: that the Earth goes around the Sun.

THERE'S BAD WEATHER HERE! WHAT DO I DO?

First: Don't panic. The shower peaks on the early morning of the 22nd. But it doesn't end that day. You can try again on the 23rd and 24th, though the numbers of meteors will likely diminish. The Lyrids will be back next year, and the year after, and so on. But if you are eager for another show, on May 6, the Eta Aquariids will be at their strongest. The night sky always delivers.

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Can You 'Hear' These Silent GIFs?
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GIFs are silent—otherwise they wouldn't be GIFs. But some people claim to hear distinct noises accompanying certain clips. Check out the GIF below as an example: Do you hear a boom every time the structure hits the ground? If so, you may belong to the 20 to 30 percent of people who experience "visual-evoked auditory response," also known as vEAR.

Researchers from City University London recently published a paper online on the phenomenon in the journal Cortex, the British Psychological Society's Research Digest reports. For their study, they recruited more than 4000 volunteers and 126 paid participants and showed them 24 five-second video clips. Each clip lacked audio, but when asked how they rated the auditory sensation for each video on a scale of 0 to 5, 20 percent of the paid participants rated at least half the videos a 3 or more. The percentage was even higher for the volunteer group.

You can try out the researchers' survey yourself. It takes about 10 minutes.

The likelihood of visual-evoked auditory response, according to the researchers, directly relates to what the subject is looking at. "Some people hear what they see: Car indicator lights, flashing neon shop signs, and people's movements as they walk may all trigger an auditory sensation," they write in the study.

Images packed with meaning, like two cars colliding, are more likely to trigger the auditory illusion. But even more abstract images can produce the effect if they have high levels of something called "motion energy." Motion energy is what you see in the video above when the structure bounces and the camera shakes. It's why a video of a race car driving straight down a road might have less of an auditory impact than a clip of a flickering abstract pattern.

The researchers categorize vEAR as a type of synesthesia, a brain condition in which people's senses are combined. Those with synesthesia might "see" patterns when music plays or "taste" certain colors. Most synesthesia is rare, affecting just 4 percent of the population, but this new study suggests that "hearing motion synesthesia" is much more prevalent.

[h/t BPS Research Digest]

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