Glider conducts research at the edge of space

It’s the morning of 2 September 2018 in El Calafate, Argentina, on a small airstrip overlooked by the majestic, snow-capped Andes Mountains.

As the sun comes up, the hangar door opens, and an incredibly sleek, engineless glider plane is towed out on to the runway. 

Its wings span 84 ft, half the height of the Arc de Triomphe, almost the distance from home plate to first base on a baseball field. Yet it weighs only 816 kilograms, about the same as a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle. 

Two pilots clamber into the slender, pressurized cockpit and signal ready for take-off. A special high-altitude tow plane starts up its engines, tows the glider into the air – and as it releases, the glider catches an updraft and begins to soar…

Ascending at as fast as 1,000 ft per minute, the glider, carrying scientific instruments and its two person crew, keeps flying up, up, up – surfing on a rare weather phenomenon called a stratospheric mountain wave. 

They pass 51,000 ft, the record they set in 2006. They pass 54,000, their record from 2017… then 65,000 ft, a record set earlier that week. Climbing over 70,000 to 73,000, they finally soar past 76,000 ft, reaching the highest level-flight altitude ever achieved by a manned, winged, subsonic aircraft. And all without an engine. 

Watch the video below to surf the skies with the crew, at the very edge of space. 

“The milestones we achieve are a testament to a pioneering spirit of exploration that runs through everyone on the project and through the organizations that support us.”

Ed Warnock, CEO of The Perlan Project, USA.

The pioneers of the Airbus Perlan Mission II are exploring the atmosphere above 60,000 ft, described by scientists as “the forgotten sphere” where the air density is less than 4% of sea-level. 

The mission, undertaken in partnership with the nonprofit Perlan Project, has demonstrated true pioneering spirit by demonstrating an entirely new way of lifting a crew and payload to these extreme altitudes on rising air. 

Previously, manned winged flight at extreme altitudes meant ever-increasing engine power with more and more emissions. By maintaining extreme altitudes for over five hours without an engine, Perlan II showed that it is possible to extract energy directly from the atmosphere by harnessing updrafts.

This could translate into significant environmental advances in airliners: if it were to extract energy from a five-knot updraft in the atmosphere, an airliner would save an estimated 45 kilograms of fuel every single minute. 

The Perlan team developed an on-board ‘wave visualisation system’ that enables crew to see areas of rising and sinking air, meaning that commercial airliners can also avoid the dangerous down drafts of up to 10,000 ft per minute that cause severe turbulence and altitude drops posing risks to passengers and crew. 

The Airbus Perlan Mission II is continuing to reach for new heights, aiming to reach 90,000 ft, where conditions are more like those on Mars than Earth, and carry on their research at the edge of space. 

Embracing innovation and exploring the boundaries of science will remain at the heart of their enterprise as it soars onwards. 

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