Airbus Perlan Mission II, the world’s first initiative to pilot an engineless aircraft to the edge of space, has successfully completed a flight test campaign in the U.S.
The Airbus Perlan glider is a research aircraft designed to fly at high altitudes in the Earth’s atmosphere. The successful test now clears the way for the stratospheric test glider to make a 90,000-foot altitude record attempt later this year in Argentina.
Over the past decade, we have been on a thrilling adventure to inspire, educate and explore in the stratosphere, and Airbus has been a great partner on that journey as together we’ve attempted — and achieved — the seemingly impossible,” said Ed Warnock, CEO of The Perlan Project.
The aircraft is able to soar without an engine to its record altitudes thanks to very rare air currents known as “stratospheric mountain waves,” which form when mountain winds are strengthened by the polar vortex.
Record 76,000 feet in 2018
The pressurized Perlan 2 glider previously set the subsonic world altitude record at over 76,000 feet in 2018.
On September 2, 2018, the Perlan 2 glider broke its own world record by reaching an altitude of 76,124 feet (23,201 meters) over the Andes Mountains in Argentina.
The flight was part of the Airbus Perlan Mission II project, which aims to explore the Earth’s atmosphere and advance our understanding of climate change.
The glider is designed to use atmospheric waves, which are created by wind interacting with the Earth’s surface, to reach extremely high altitudes.
During the 2018 flight, the Perlan 2 glider was piloted by Jim Payne and Tim Gardner, who were able to use the glider’s advanced technology to soar to the edge of space.
The glider is equipped with a suite of scientific instruments that can measure atmospheric conditions and collect data on the Earth’s climate.
The 2018 flight was a significant milestone for the Airbus Perlan Mission II project, as it demonstrated the glider’s capabilities and the potential for high-altitude research.
The project has continued to conduct research flights since then, with the goal of further exploring the Earth’s atmosphere and advancing our understanding of climate change.
Aiming higher – 90,000 service ceiling
This week the test aircraft departed from the U.S. for the long journey to El Calafate, Argentina. Above the Patagonian Andes where atmospheric conditions are optimal, expert pilots and engineers from the non-profit The Perlan Project will now attempt to soar the experimental glider to its service ceiling of 90,000 feet.
“If a glider, which is a truly zero-emission aircraft, can become the highest-flying aircraft of all time, it sends a powerful message that decarbonization of aviation is no impediment to achievement, and can even be an enabler,” said C. Jeffrey Knittel, Airbus Americas Chairman and CEO.
As a research platform that emits no exhaust, Perlan 2 is ideally suited to the high-altitude atmospheric research the team will conduct to inform more accurate climate-change models.
The aircraft will soar to altitudes where the air density is similar to the atmosphere on Mars, providing unique opportunities for aerodynamic studies related to turbulence, extreme weather and future space exploration.
The aircraft will also carry aloft experiments designed by school students through The Perlan Project’s STEM partnership with Teachers in Space.
Airbus began its title sponsorship of The Perlan Project in 2014, facilitating the completion of Perlan 2’s construction. The glider, described by Warnock as “a space capsule with wings,” is equipped with sophisticated life support systems and instrumentation to ensure pilot safety.
The Airbus Perlan Mission II team is made up of some of the aviation industry’s most celebrated test pilots and world-renowned climate scientists.
The team will conduct its 2023 flying campaign from late July through mid-September, when stratospheric mountain waves are most likely to occur in the Southern Hemisphere.