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Climate Researchers Plan Glider Mission to Edge of Space

Not a lot is known about the weather at 90,000 feet above the earth’s surface, so a team of scientists and aviators are going to fly there using an engineless aircraft to learn more about what the weather at such extreme altitudes has to say about climate change.

It’s called the Perlan Project, and the glider the team will use — the Perlan Mission II glider — will attempt its first flight on Wednesday in Oregon, the first of many test flights before the aircraft rides a column of air rising off the Andes Mountains to 90,000 feet over South America sometime in 2016.

A rendering of the Perlan Mission II glider, which will makes its first flight in Oregon on Sept. 23.
Credit: Airbus

The glider, technically a sailplane, will be the first manned glider in history to maintain level flight at such heights, and it will do so without polluting the air around it with engines, according to commercial airplane manufacturer Airbus Group, the mission’s chief sponsor.

Flying to the edge of space will give scientists a chance to study how different layers of the atmosphere interact at extreme altitudes, possibly the prelude to higher-altitude commercial flight, Airbus spokesman James Darcy said.

Climate science will also be a major aspect of the mission, he said.

“Currently climate change models are based on a theoretical understanding of how different layers of the atmosphere interact with each other,” Darcy said. “Models are perhaps more simple than they should be. The scientific aim of Perlan will be to better understand the weather in the upper reaches of the atmosphere and build a more accurate model of what’s happening. That will drive more accurate predictability with respect to climate change.”

How will an engineless aircraft glide to the edge of space?

“The Perlan team is exploiting stratospheric mountain waves,” Darcy said. “These are waves that form where you have winds that form perpendicular to a mountain ridge and form a rising column of air. It combines with the polar vortex to drive these mountains waves into the stratosphere.”

Though the testing next week takes place near Bend, Ore., the Perlan team will trek down to Argentina next year to find a high enough mountain ridge — the Andes — that is close enough to the southern polar vortex for conditions to be correct to propel the glider to 90,000 feet, where the air density is less than 2 percent of what it is at sea level.

On its first flight, the Perlan 2 glider will be towed by a small jet to 5,000 feet, where it will be released. Flying for about 45 minutes, it will circle around the airport, perform some maneuvers, and then land.

“This is one of the most audacious things we’ve seen in aviation in a very long term,” Darcy said. “The Perlan Project will look at high-altitude weather phenomena that have never been observed before.”

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