Euro airliner firm Airbus is sponsoring a glider capable of soaring to greater altitudes than the famous SR-71 Blackbird spy aircraft.
The Perlan 2 project aims to get a conventional sailplane up to altitudes of 90,000 feet, surpassing the SR-71's declared service ceiling of 85,000ft.
Sponsored by Airbus, the Perlan 2 glider features a pressurised cabin for its two-man crew and weighs just 1,800lbs (816kg) fully loaded. The glider also has an oxygen rebreather system, as well as enhanced transponder and telemetry systems to record its flights.
The glider is currently en route to Argentina aboard a container ship. By the middle of this month the Perlan 2 team will have reassembled it ready for further test flights.
While one of the project's ambitions is to set a new glider altitude record, its main scientific aims are to sample the Earth's atmosphere, free from contaminants produced by the sampling aircraft's own engines, and to gather data that will inform climate scientists about the interaction between the stratosphere and the troposphere.
Perlan 2's goal is to operate at altitudes of 90,000ft. The existing world glider altitude record, of 51,651ft, was set by the Perlan 1 glider in 2006.
The Royal Aeronautical Society's Bill Read writes that the Perlan 2 will exploit a well-known meteorological phenomenon, the mountain wave, to reach its great altitudes.
“In the same way as a river forms waves when it flows over a rock, strong winds crossing a mountain range will make standing waves in the air. Such waves need particular conditions to be created – if the winds are blowing more than 15kt sideways over the mountain and the atmosphere is stable, then waves will form on the lee side of the mountains,” wrote Reed.
In the right atmospheric conditions – namely, winter in sub-polar regions, at points where the normal jet stream over mountains coincides with the stratospheric polar night jet – mountain waves can extend upwards as far as the stratosphere. It is this seasonal phenomenon that Perlan 2 seeks to exploit. ®