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Flying to the edge of space without an engine is an idea so crazy it might just work

The plan is for the Perlan Glider to soar 90,000 feet above the earth in 2016 — without an engine. (Courtesy: Perlan Project and Airbus Group)
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If you thought that flying in the earth’s stratosphere requires super-powerful engines, think again. The new Perlan 2 Glider, which completed its first-ever test flight on Sept. 23 in Redmond, Oregon, is a tiny engineless aircraft that’s designed to reach the edge of space by “surfing” the strong air currents of the Polar Vortex. (Yes, the same Polar Vortex that everyone was talking about last winter.)

The first test flight — in which the aircraft flew at a very modest 5,000 feet — was just the start. The upcoming goal is to complete a mission in July 2016 in which the Perlan Glider will sail along at 90,000 feet above the earth — at the edge of space — to make it the highest-flying winged aircraft ever.

At an airport in Redmond, Ore., the Perlan 2 glider has successfully completed its first flight in what has been a landmark moment. (Video: Airbus Group/YouTube)

To put that in context, the current world record is 85,069 feet held by the SR-71 Blackbird, which reached that altitude in July 1976. And the super-secretive U-2 spy plane has reached altitudes of just over 70,000 feet. By way of comparison, a commercial airliner travels at approximately 35,000 feet. At beyond about 62,000 feet — the so-called Armstrong Limit — some body liquids will boil if you’re not wearing a pressure suit.

In the same way that surfers ride waves in the ocean, pilots of the Perlan Glider ride the strong “mountain waves” that can be found in some regions of the earth’s stratosphere. The existence of these “mountain waves” in sub-polar regions is a phenomenon that has been theorized about since the 1930s, but it’s only recently that aviation innovators have found a way to square theory with practice in order to reach some truly impressive heights.

Thanks to mountain waves that propagate through the troposphere to the stratosphere, gliders can reach record-breaking heights. In 1996, an early version of the Perlan Glider set a glider altitude record of 50,722 feet. Even though it lacks an engine,

— which gives you an idea of the combined force and fury behind the Polar Vortex in mountainous regions.

Only when you see an image of the Perlan II Glider nestled up alongside a commercial jet airliner is it possible to grasp fully the audacity of what the Perlan II Glider team is attempting to accomplish in 2016. With an 84-foot wingspan, the Perlan Glider fits snugly under a single engine of a commercial airliner. In other words, it’s so tiny that you would never think that it might be able to make it to the edge of space. And, even if it could, would you trust any aircraft that doesn’t come with an engine just in case, you know, something happens? There’s room for a crew of two pilots, some scientific instruments and not much else, so it’s obvious that the Perlan Glider is not the future of commercial aviation as we traditionally think of it. Given the fact that the glider depends on strong air currents to carry it along, it’s subject to weather limitations as well. For example, an earlier launch scheduled for Sept. 16 was scratched due to weather conditions and the Sept. 23 test launch came with the requisite “weather permitting” caveat. However, the Perlan Glider is aiming higher than just setting extreme altitude records. According to the leaders of the Perlan Project, the goal is to contribute to our understanding of modern climate science by looking down on the earth from an unheard-of altitude. At 90,000 feet above the earth, the Perlan Glider would have unique access to scientific research on global climate change and changes to the earth’s ozone layer, which is located at 80,000 to 100,000 feet above the earth. “We’re extremely excited about the successful first flight of the Perlan 2 glider,” said Ed Warnock, chief executive of the Perlan Project. “This marks a major breakthrough in aviation innovation, one that will allow winged exploration of the atmosphere at the edge of space and lead to new discoveries to unravel some of the continuing mysteries of weather, climate change and ozone depletion.” And there are potential applications for the Perlan Glider in developing the future of space exploration. That’s because the conditions in the earth’s stratosphere approximate those on Mars, according to Perlan. The air in the stratosphere is approximately 2 percent as dense as the air found at sea level and comes with temperatures of minus-70 degrees Celsius, comparable to atmospheric conditions on Mars. So, it’s possible to imagine a futuristic scenario in which a similar type of space glider soars across Mars before settling down on the Martian surface to keep future Mars rovers company. Over the next year, the Perlan team (a volunteer-run nonprofit organization supported by Airbus Group) plans a number of other flights and further coordination with climate researchers before the big flight in 2016 at 90,000 feet over Patagonia. In May 2019, the plan is to push the envelope even further, flying at 100,000 feet above the earth’s surface at even higher flight speeds to explore the Polar Vortex. The fact that the Perlan 2 Glider has the backing of Airbus Group should tell you plenty about the high-profile nature of the project. “Airbus Perlan Mission II is a historic endeavor in the truest spirit of aviation’s earliest pioneers,” said Tom Enders, chairman and chief executive of Airbus Group. “The knowledge gained from this project will impact how the world understands and addresses climate change. But it will also help Airbus continue to innovate ways to fly higher, faster and cleaner, on Earth and possibly beyond.”

Taking a 90,000-foot view, it’s clear that there’s something interesting happening at the edge of aeronautics and astronautics, with big-time aviation companies such as Boeing and Airbus playing a role in driving innovation in the space exploration space. In the case of Boeing, it’s a brand-new spacecraft called the Starliner and now in the case of Airbus, it’s a glider for the edge of space (and maybe Mars).

The Perlan Glider might go a long way in breaking down our mental conceptions of what it means to travel in space, opening the door to other innovators who grasp the potential of powering aircraft with new forms of energy sources in ways that once seemed impossible.