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Will figure skating ever see a quintuple jump? Here's what physics says

Quadruple jumps are super-difficult, but some experts say quints are in the cards.

It took American figure skater Nathan Chen 4 minutes and 30 seconds to make history last week during his free skate at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. In that time the 18-year-old phenom landed a record-setting six quadruple jumps.

The spectacle would have seemed impossible just a few years ago. But after Chen’s skate it didn’t take long before fans began wondering about the next figure skating milestone. Is the quad the limit — or will skaters one day be doing quintuple jumps?

Nathan Chen competes in the men's free skate event during the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang on Feb. 17, 2018.Aris Messinis / AFP - Getty Images

“If we do see it, it’ll be a rarity,” said Dr. James Richards, a University of Delaware kinesiology professor who in the 1990s worked with U.S. Figure Skating to analyze skaters’ jumping technique. “The quad has become kind of a required element for men. I can’t see the quint ever reaching that level.”

Dr. Deborah King, a biomechanics expert at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York, said the quintuple jump could become a thing but added that it could take 15 to 20 years before a skater successfully lands one — and that “it’s going to take a really special skater to do it.”

Physics on ice

Every spinning jump involves mastery of three interrelated phenomena: angular momentum, which is essentially the amount of energy generated when a skater leaves the ice; moment of inertia, which can be thought of as how much a skater’s body mass is spread out relative to his or her center of gravity; and rotational velocity, or how fast a skater is spinning in the air.

Completing more spins means a skater must skate faster and jump higher to increase the angular momentum and maintain an extremely tight body position (with arms close to the body and legs together) to reduce the moment of inertia and increase the rotational velocity.

“For some skaters, there’s probably a tiny bit of extra room to get their elbows tighter, press their knees and ankles together more, but there’s not much,” King said. “If you can get your body 5 percent tighter, that doesn’t give you an extra 360 degrees of rotation, but it gets you along the way.”

What about jumping 5 percent higher? “That’s asking a lot,” King said. “And trying to get that extra momentum off the ice and extra height is going to be really difficult.”

Elite male skaters typically boost themselves about two feet in the air to complete a jump, spinning so fast that the jump is completed in less than a second. That means they must spin very, very fast.

Clearly, it will take a special skater to nail a quint — someone with strength and coordination, of course, but also someone with a special body type. Richards and King agreed that because shorter, lighter skaters have a smaller moment of inertia, they have a leg up when it comes to executing difficult jumps.

How do skaters feel about the prospects of a quint?

In 1988, Canadian figure skater Kurt Browning became the first person to land a quad in competition. When he was training to do the jump, “we really just jumped as high as we could and pulled in as hard as we could and hoped for the best," Browning told NBC News MACH in an email. "These days it is science and more and more skaters can do the jump because of what they learned as kids."

Browning said he doubted that the quintuple jump would become commonplace in figure skating. But, he added, "Say no to the human spirit and the spirit will find a way.”