A glider designed by Airbus Group successfully completed its maiden flight Wednesday ahead of next year’s attempt to reach the edge of the space. The ultimate goal is to study the stratospheric weather, which seems to have more influence on Earth's climate than previously thought.
Because gliders are engineless, they must be towed by powered planes to a certain height. From there, they use natural updrafts, also called mountain waves, to soar through the sky. That is why their wings are so much longer than an ordinary plane’s.
Under the right conditions, experienced pilots can reach very high altitudes and stay aloft for hours in gliders.
On its first flight, Airbus’ Perlan 2 reached only 1.5 kilometers, but next year project managers plan to go a lot higher, to an altitude of 27 kilometers — higher than the records set by the U-2 and SR-71 spy planes.
“We're not a thousand percent sure that the mountain wave will go that high, but all the meteorologists tell us that it does, so we're going to go out and find out,” chief pilot Jim Payne said.
The goal is to investigate how fast-moving winds blowing at altitudes between 10 and 50 kilometers influence Earth's climate.
“It turns out some of the biggest waves in the world — vertical movements — exist in the stratosphere," said Ed Warnock, chief executive officer of the Perlan Project. "We're going to go and study those waves. Those waves change weather and they change climate, and we are going to study how do they do that.”
Stratospheric winds may also influence commercial air traffic as airliners fly higher to reduce fuel consumption. The air density at those altitudes is similar to that of the Martian atmosphere, so the Perlan Project may also contribute to the design of aircraft that someday could fly through the skies of the Red Planet.