The Airbus Perlan Mission II has already reached some ridiculously high altitudes for an engineless glider but later this year it could become the highest-flying aircraft of all time.
Airbus said its glider has successfully completed its testing campaign in the U.S., which included setting the subsonic world altitude record at over 76,000 feet in 2018. Now the aircraft is set to hit its service ceiling at 90,000 feet. For context, most commercial flights settle into cruising altitudes between 33,000 and 42,000 feet. So, 90,000 feet is pretty high.
It sounds a little dicey flying a glider more than 17 miles in the air, but Airbus and the non-profit Perlan Project have built the ship to handle it. The glider, which basically counts as a spacecraft, has an 84-foot wingspan and it is engineered to fly in conditions that are similar to the surface of Mars. At 90,000 feet, that will mean flying in less than 3% of normal air density and extremely cold conditions. Like, -158 degrees fahrenheit cold.
As for how the glider manages to fly at such great heights without an engine, Airbus said it’s due to “very rare air currents known as stratospheric mountain waves, which form when mountain winds are strengthened by the polar vortex.” The Perlan will be flying above the Patagonian Andes when it attempts to reach a record altitude.
Airbus said its glider plane will be able to investigate the interaction between the troposphere and the stratosphere while also collecting data on the depletion of the ozone layer, which filters out harmful UV rays. The aircraft will also carry experiments designed by school students through a STEM partnership with Teachers in Space.
Airbus Americas CEO Jeff Knittel also said the mission will serve as validation for the future of zero-emission aircraft.
“If a glider, which is a truly zero-emission aircraft, can become the highest-flying aircraft of all time, it sends a powerful message that decarbonization of aviation is no impediment to achievement, and can even be an enabler,” he said.
Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly placed the altitude of the Karman line at lower than 90,000 feet.