Engineless Airbus Glider Tests Viability of Wing-Borne Exploration of Mars

Sep 4, 2018

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Clearly, pilots Jim Payne and Tim Gardner are immune to altitude sickness. The two were onboard the Airbus Perlan Mission II, an engineless glider that just broke its own altitude record by soaring at  76,124 feet. The reason for the achievement? A combination of smoother, more efficient flights in the future, and a potential run-in with Martians.

Tom Enders, Airbus CEO, had this to say about the flight: “By exploring an underexplored part of the atmosphere, Perlan is teaching us about efficient high-altitude flight, about detecting natural sources of lift and avoiding turbulence, and even about the viability of wing-borne exploration of Mars. As a company that makes not just airliners but also high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles such as Zephyr as well as the Mars rover robotic vehicle, every Perlan flight is an investment in our future.”

The flight managed to surpass even the maximum recorded altitude in level flight of the US Air Force’s famous U-2 Dragon Lady reconnaissance aircraft: 73,737 feet, flown by pilot Jerry Hoyt on Apr. 17, 1989. The pressurized Perlan 2 glider is designed to fly to 90,000 feet, conditions permitting, which is well above the Armstrong Limit – the height where atmospheric pressure is so low that all body fluids will begin to boil if not protected.

Airbus Perlan Mission II, which weighs some 1,800 pounds and boasts a wingspan of 84 feet, will continue its 2018 flying season through mid-September, when the season for stratospheric mountain waves in the southern hemisphere begins to die down. The test flights occur in the Andes Mountains, where the glider leans on “atmospheric pressure variations caused by the polar vortex and a related weather phenomenon called the stratospheric polar night jet to ascend farther and farther upwards.”

Airbus Perlan Mission II glider soars to 76,000 feet (Photo courtesy of Airbus)

The crew intends to continue pushing closer and closer to the edge of space, a height at which stars are visible even during the day. Unfortunately, there’s no mechanism for civilians to hop a similar ride, but you can bet we’ll let you know if and when that changes. Meanwhile, onboard sensors will continue to learn how aircraft perform in thin air, potentially opening up additional bandwidth for our highways in the sky.


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