The Airbus-sponsored Perlan 2 is a pressurized sailplane designed to fly at the edge of space where the air density is less than 2% of what it is at sea level. It will carry a crew of two and scientific instruments needed to explore the science of stratospheric “mountain waves”.
The aircraft has a gross weight of 1,800 pounds and a wing span of 84 feet. Its true flight speed at 90,000 feet will be 350 knots (403mph). The cabin will be pressurized to 8.5psi (14,500 feet). The crew will breathe pure oxygen provided by a rebreather system.
The aircraft made two initial test flights from its base in Minden, Nevada in mid-January, followed more recently by a successful first pressurized flight, validating the system that will keep the crew alive in atmospheric conditions similar to those on Mars. The first stratospheric flight is scheduled for later this year, in Argentina.
Glider pilots have surfed on mountain waves since 1932. The process is like surfing on a wave in the ocean, except the glider is in the wave rather than on the surface of the wave. More recently it has been discovered that the Polar Vortex, and one of its principal components, the stratospheric polar night jet, provide the high-speed wind in the stratosphere that powers incredibly high waves. The Perlan Project was formed to explore these waves and soar them to the edge of space.
In phase 1 of the project, Steve Fossett and Einar Enevoldson soared the Perlan I research glider to a record altitude for gliders of 50,722 feet in the mountain waves at El Calafate, Argentina on 30th August 2006. Phase 2, under way now, involves the design and construction of a pressurized glider to soar to the edge of space at 90,000 feet. This phase of research will set a new world altitude record for wing-borne flight exceeding the records claimed by the U-2 and the SR-71. A subsequent phase 3 (2016-2019) will set a goal of exploring the stratosphere up to 100,000 feet. Flight speeds will increase to the point where the glider will need new transonic wings. Flight operations will be extended to exploring the Polar Vortex in the northern hemisphere.
The Perlan 2 glider was developed by The Perlan Project, a volunteer-run, non-profit endeavour headed by leaders in aerospace and engineering. It is supported by Airbus Group and a group of other sponsors that includes Weather Extreme Ltd., United Technologies and BRS Aerospace.