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 5x03), 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.

The yellow real-life prototype Iron Man suit alongside Felix Baumgartner's Red Bull Stratos suit (Photo: Blaze Sanders/Solar System Express/Red Bull Stratos)

Sol-X intends to commence in similar fashion to the Red Bull Stratos jump by first testing the suit with lower-altitude jumps and parachute descents, but the final goal is far more ambitious. Through the use of wingsuit technology and specially-designed boots with miniature aerospike engines attached, the space diver will end his spectacular jump with a glide to Earth and a power-assisted vertical landing. At least, that's the plan.

New York-based Final Frontier Design is working with Sol-X on a customized version of its low-cost Intra-Vehicular Activity IVA 3G spacesuit, successfully crowd funded last year through an online Kickstarter campaign. Lightweight layers of aerogel and Space Shuttle-like flexible insulation blankets will serve as the spacesuit’s outermost protective thermal layer, with Sol-X currently in talks with several wingsuit manufacturers to assist in merging their technology with the RL MARK VI Space Diving Suit .

Juxtopia’s AR Goggles

Juxtopia’s AR Goggles work on the principal of “Optical See-Through," similar to the HUD on a fighter jet, with numerical information and other visual data overlaid on the pilot’s outside views. Similar also in function to Google Glass, the AR Goggles are first and foremost intended to provide the space diver with a constant stream of vital information to assist in course direction and maintaining the dive within the specified safety parameters.

Real-time dynamic analytics keep the diver advised of heart rate, respiration and internal/external space suit temperatures. The display will provide data on rates of acceleration and deceleration, GPS location, and elevation, plus an FAA radar display of the local airspace. The design of the goggles includes voice control to turn the RL MARK VI’s systems on and off, eject spent hardware components from the diver’s body at different altitudes, manipulate suit cams and lighting, and to control verbal communications to ground control.

Mock up HUD display of the hi-tech augmented reality goggles (Photo: Blaze Sanders/Juxtopia)

Gyroscopic boots and power gloves

The gyroscopic boots will perform two vital functions. At 62 miles (100 km) high there are no aerodynamic forces acting upon the diver’s body that will assist them in stabilizing the dive. The gyroscopes built into the boots will provide a stabilizing mechanism to maintain a balanced and optimum attitude during descent from the thermosphere down to the stratopause. A further safety feature known as a “flat spin compensator” will kick in if the diver loses control of his attitude for more than five seconds.

The other main function of the diver’s gyroscopic boots will kick in as he nears the surface of the Earth and he fires off his miniature in-built aerospike thrusters to gently descend to the ground for a feet-first perfect landing. The controllers for the gyroscopic boots will be built into “power gloves” for ease of access.

Preliminary CAD design of the RL MARK VI "rocket boots" (Photo: Blaze Sanders/Solar System Express

Gravity Development Board

A Gravity Development Board (GDB), a proprietary piece of hardware designed by Sol-X, will serve as the main interface between the MARK VI’s three major components and will control all critical systems.

According to Blaze Sanders, Chief Technology Officer of Sol-X, “The GDB will be the first space-rated open hardware electronic prototyping board, enabling any type of person to create space qualified hardware. The GDB will replace the Arduino Uno as the preferred high-level prototyping environment."

The final frontier

Testing the suit at altitude should begin around July of 2016 with 1.25 mile-high (2 km) parachute jumps from a helium balloon and tethered tower. No firm dates have been set for suborbital and orbital testing, but initial plans call for the use of a robot (under development) supplied by Juxtopia to be used as the test subject for the first few jumps. Thrill-seeking adventurers will just have to enjoy their "orbital skydiving" via the big screen for a while longer.

The following video highlights space diving's potential.

Source: Solar System Express