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Can Master Chief Survive Falling from Space?

This episode of Because Science is sponsored by Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Could Master Chief really survive a fall from space? ♪ Oh ♪ ♪ Ho science oh ♪ If you're going to fight off an alien invasion and stop the obliteration of all sentient life in the galaxy almost single-handedly, you better be seriously tough. And that's exactly what the Halo franchise's Spartan soldiers are. They are bigger, taller-- Take this!faster, and stronger than any other human fighter. But are these Covenant killers really so tough that they can survive a fall from space? This thought experiment comes from the opening mission of the long-lasting first-person shooter, Halo 3. In it, soldier John-117 jumps from the enemy ship, the Anodyne, as it's descending through the Earth's atmosphere.



According to the game and the Halo comics, Master Chief jumps out 2 kilometers above the surface and rides an improvised heat shield all the way down into the African soil below. The Chief takes a beating during the impact, but eventually he's up and meleeing Grunts like nothing ever happened. I know that Chief is a genetically engineered supersoldier in an exosuit from the future, but could any humanoid really survive this kind of descent and impact? First, let's get something out of the way. I've been asked about this very situation for years now, and even though it's always phrased the same way, I don't think that in this scene Master Chief is falling from space.



The easiest way to tell is that fireball. The only way for a ship like that to create a fireball like this is for it to travel so quickly through an atmosphere at many kilometers per second that the air in front of it can't move out of the way. The air then compresses in front of that object and heats up because it's being compressed, forced into a smaller volume, which can heat up the object so much that the object will glow or even break apart and burst into flame. And if an object like that is encountering an atmosphere, that necessarily means that it's not in the vacuum of space anymore. So I think what we are really asking is can Master Chief jump from 2,000 meters above the Earth's surface, land, and live? Wow, that was close.



Take that! Oh no! Ugh. Even if Master Chief is going fast enough inside the Anodyne to create his own fireball when he jumps out, because of the altitude he is at and air resistance, he will reach his own terminal velocity before he hits the ground. Terminal velocity is the velocity at which an object's weight is equaled out by the force of drag put on it by the air it is free-falling through at that velocity. And generally speaking, the smaller the creature or object, the smaller the terminal velocity, the more survivable the impact. This is why animals the size of mice and smaller seem to be able to survive falls from any height. The force of drag put on their small bodies is big enough to reduce their terminal velocities to almost or completely harmless. The relationship between animal size and animal terminal velocity is why we have that famous quote from English scientist J.B.S. Haldane who says you can drop a mouse down a thousand-yard mineshaft and it will get a bit of a shock, but then it will walk away. However, a rat is killed. A man is broken. And a horse splashes. Ho. But what about Master Chief? If we set weight equal to drag force, we can solve for the velocity at which Master Chief will stop accelerating through Earth's atmosphere under Earth's gravity.



We just need the right numbers. Kyletana, give me John-117's stats. Master Chief stands 208.3 centimeters tall and in his armor has a total mass of 451.3 kilograms. Master Chief, more like Master Beef, am I right? All right, all right, that's enough. Damn handsome program, though. Damn handsome. Assuming a drag coefficient, estimating his surface area, writing our equation in an unintelligible way that's cramped for space, and solving for velocity, and we get a terminal velocity for Master Chief as he is falling through Earth's atmosphere of 68 meters per second. This is 30% faster than a typical skydiver's terminal velocity. Over 150 miles an hour. Master Chief would hit the ground with a much higher velocity than a skydiver without a parachute would, but Master Chief is also much more durable than an overenthusiastic person wearing a jumpsuit. So what would the inevitable impact be like? One way to determine the survivability of an impact is to calculate how many Gs an object will pull when it hits a surface, or how quickly it will decelerate compared to the acceleration due to Earth's gravity.

Now, Gs is not an exact way to determine damage, but an impact that causes 100 Gs worth of deceleration is enough stoppage to stop your life. So we're going to use that as a limit in Master Chief's fall. And keep in mind, at the terminal velocity we calculated for him, Master Chief has the same kinetic energy as an SUV going 140 kilometers, or 85 miles, per hour. No matter how he lands, it is going to hurt. Wow, I guess we got pretty lucky with-- Take that! Oh. But before we do any more math, we should know what we're looking for. It's very easy, when doing these kinds of analyses, to just get some numbers. But it's always very helpful to ask if those numbers actually fit with the real world or at least with the world that you are considering. In our case, we have Master Chief falling into a jungle and making a decently sized crater. We set 100 Gs as the limit for safe deceleration and calculated his terminal velocity. Now, we could go on and calculate his stopping time, how much force would be applied to him over that time, and what distance that force would be applied over, but we should check ourselves.

We know that this impact happens very quickly, so stopping time should be very short. We also know that he makes about a him-sized crater, so the stopping distance should be large but not too large. For example, if we calculated that it would take 100 meters for Master Chief to come to a stop safely, that just wouldn't look right. It's not too it's yeah. Starting his fall 2 kilometers above Earth's surface, Master Chief would reach his terminal velocity in around 15 seconds. Around 15 seconds later Master Chief would smash into the African soil below him. And if he did not pull more than 100 Gs during that impact, and if he came in at an angle, as it appears he does in the game, he could stop in as short a time as 69 milliseconds. Nice. Using this stopping time, we can calculate the average force that it would take to change Master Chief's momentum to zero. And using that average force, and looking at things another way, we can see over what distance you could apply that average force to bring his kinetic energy to zero. And you get 2.3 meters. Now, let's check ourselves again. Coming to a stop in a very short amount of time in a distance that is less than the length of a Warthog. I think that almost perfectly fits with what we see in Halo 3.

But look at the average force here. Hundreds of thousands of newtons. Even if Master Chief wasn't decelerated to death, could he really walk away from an average force put on his body like this? What do you think, Kyletana? Well, aren't you gonna tell us anyway, Discount Thor? Funny. Funny guy. Real great. Surviving a fall from an incredible height isn't just about numbers. Jiralhanae grenade. It's also about luck. During World War II, in the January of 1942, Soviet Air Force soldier Ivan Chisov was shot down by German aircraft. Instead of burning inside of the aircraft, he decided to jump. But he did not want to open his parachute for fear of being an easy target for any other German aircraft in the area, and so he wanted to wait to a lower altitude before he opened his parachute. But he passed out before he could do so. After falling 7,000 kilometers, it's estimated that Chisov hit a snowy ravine at somewhere between 190 and 240 kilometers per hour, over 150 miles per hour. His comrades later found him in the snowy ravine, unconscious, with his unopened parachute still strapped to him. He had severe injuries, but within three months he was flying again.

Also during World War II, on March 24th, 1944, English airman Nicholas Alkemade was shot down by German aircraft. He decided to take his chances by jumping out of the airplane without a parachute. After falling over 5 kilometers, Alkemade's body hit some pine trees and then the snowy ground beneath. He was able to walk away with nothing but a sprained leg. There are many special cases like this, where the numbers say that a falling person shouldn't survive, but they do anyway. It's not miraculous, but it is unbelievably lucky. And that luck comes from shared circumstances. In almost all of the high-profile cases where humans have fallen from extreme heights and survived, the victims don't impact the ground directly.

They impact obstacles like trees and bushes and protection like snow, which softens the landing. Thanks to Isaac Newton we know that it takes less force to slow something down slowly than it does to slow something down very, very quickly to come to an abrupt stop. And I know that a tree or a bush doesn't seem like much, but just doubling the time it takes for something to slow down, say from 10 to 20 milliseconds, will cut the force in half. But would Master Chief be so lucky in his survival story? Well, he does have a lot of things going for him. The first is protection. An exosuit from 500 years in the future, which has a gel layer, which would help with deceleration. And he is much more robust than the average person.

He is genetically engineered to have stronger muscles and bigger bones. And he is falling through a jungle in this example, which would have many trees to break his fall. Take all of this together with the fact that humans in real life have fallen from higher than Master Chief did, at velocities similar to his terminal velocity, and I think that yes, Master Chief has an abnormally good chance of surviving a fall from space just like we see in Halo 3. It's all physics and really, really good luck, which we know Master Chief has. Was I wrong? So could Master Chief actually survive a fall from space? Well, from a few amazing stories, we know that it is humanly possible to survive and walk away from a kilometers-long fall. The decelerations and impact forces would be enormous, but if Chief got lucky enough to have the right conditions upon landing, physics would save him. Also wearing a 700-pound exosuit from the future helps. Because Science.

♪ Ho yeah ♪ ♪ Science yeah ♪ ♪ Science ♪ The person who is actually credited by the Guinness Book of World Records as having survived the highest fall is Vesna Vulovic, who fell out of an airliner after it was destroyed by very bad people, and fell all the way to the ground, and she was still strapped into her seat, and she had severe injuries but she survived. Now, I say that because it might be even more likely that Master Chief could survive a fall from space because canonically he jumped out of the ship with an improvised heat shield, some debris that he could have held all the way to the ground, which could act as a further buffer against extreme deceleration.

So Halo, luck evolved. Phew. Thank you again to Shadow of the Tomb Raider for sponsoring this episode of Because Science. Become the Tomb Raider you are meant to be in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Survive and master the deadly jungle, overcome terrifying tombs, and persevere through Lara Croft's darkest hour. Race against time to save the world from the impending Maya apocalypse, and uncover your destiny as the Tomb Raider. Survive the deadliest place on Earth by becoming one with the jungle environment, striking from the shadows only to disappear like a jaguar. Explore and discover this wild environment and all of its mysteries ready to be revealed. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is available now for Xbox One, PS4, and PC wherever games are sold. Thank you so much for watching, Crystal. If you like this video on Facebook, consider liking it.

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