On August 26, the Perlan Project successfully flew a glider at 62,000 feet to set a new world altitude record. The pressurized glider is towed aloft by a specially modified Grob Egrett G520 turboprop and then released at 42,000 feet. The glider then climbs higher still by using seasonal stratospheric mountain waves from the Andes Mountains. Glider pilots know all about winds that are pushed aloft by the face of a mountain chain, but NASA discovered in the 1990s that these winds can extend all the way into the stratosphere at certain times of the year.
From the Perlan Project website:
The Perlan 2 will fly to 90,000 feet at the edge of space to explore the science of giant mountain waves that help create the ozone hole and change global climate models. This will require the engineering of a spacecraft with glider wings that can fly in less than 3% of normal air density and at temperatures of minus 70 degrees C, conditions approximating the surface of Mars. These missions will provide education and inspiration for young people seeking careers of exploration and adventure in engineering and science. (Perlan Project)
Project engineers predict that when the glider reaches 90,000 feet it will be traveling at 350 knots, or about 403 mph. To put that into some context, the highest the mighty SR-71 Blackbird has ever flown is 85,069 feet, albeit at a significantly higher speed.
But why a glider when we already have aircraft that can fly this high? Because aircraft engines produce heat, and that changes the atmospheric conditions immediately around the aircraft.
The project, sponsored by Airbus, is currently in Phase 2. Phase 3 will see the glider soaring as high as 100,000 feet and reaching transonic speeds which will require a new wing design. Research flights will then be conducted in the polar vortex to investigate ozone depletion and other signs of climate change.
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