The Perlan 2 glider has successfully made its first test flight, preparing it for its eventual flight to the edge of space. The glider was launched by an agricultural airplane and flew to a height of 5,000 feet, piloted by Jim Payne and Morgan Sandercook. A flight to 5,000 feet, however, is just the beginning. Next year, the aircraft will fly to a whopping 90,000 feet in Argentina, where it will study things like weather, climate change and the ozone layer. This research will hopefully help scientists better understand how higher altitude affects aircraft and their performance.
The Airbus Perlan 2 itself is made out of composite materials, and as a glider, it is completely engineless. In addition to its earthly goals, in the future, it could also be the kind of aircraft used by the first humans to colonize Mars. The reason for this is that 90,000 feet on Earth is similar to the air on Mars in both temperature and air density. In gliding up to 90,000 feet, the aircraft will set a new record for the highest altitude by a glider, with the previous record, 51,000 feet, being set by the Perlan 1. This record was set in 2006. The biggest issue in creating the Perlan 2 was the expense and engineering needed to include hardware and software for the flight. The team wanted to use human pilots, which are much faster at learning and responding while gliding up on the powerful air waves in the atmosphere. So, just how does the glider get that high without an engine? It essentially rides updrafts, also known as stratospheric mountain waves, or winds that flow over mountain ranges and then up.
In December, the glider will again be tested in Minden, Nev., where it will be put through five months of pressurized flights. Then, it will be shipped to Argentina to take advantage of the winds from the Andes, and in July or August, depending on wind conditions, it will finally soar to 90,000 feet. Talks about the Perlan 3 have already begun, which will aim to glide up to 100,000 feet.