Airbus’ Perlan 2 glider, the world’s first engineless aircraft designed to reach the edge of space, had its first successful test flight last week, according to a Sept. 23 press release. The glider, a pressurized aircraft made largely of composite materials, flew 5,000 feet above Roberts Field in Redmond, Ore. Next year, in July 2016, Perlan 2 chief pilot Jim Payne plans to set a new world altitude record for any airplane by taking the plane 90,000 feet.
For the fuselage, engineers of the glider used a vacuum infusion process to lay up materials a carbon fiber mold. The mold was heated to a medium heat and held at a constant temperature for several hours. The final part was cured in an autoclave. The horizontal tailplane was built similarly, with the actual parts laid up in a mold with a lightweight pre-preg carbon fiber cloth.
In addition to helping the company drive manufacturing innovation, Airbus noted that the knowledge it gains from the Perlan 2 project will also help it gain a deeper perspective on climate change.
“We’re extremely excited about the successful first flight of the Perlan 2 glider,” said Ed Warnock, CEO of the Perlan Project. “This marks a major breakthrough in aviation innovation, one that will allow winged exploration of the atmosphere at the edge of space and lead to new discoveries to unravel some of the continuing mysteries of weather, climate change and ozone depletion.”
Airbus notes that since the Perlan 2 operates without an engine, when it eventually reaches the edge of space, it will do so without polluting the atmosphere. While touching the stratosphere, scientists will be able to take untainted air samples to measure levels of damaging chemicals and assess the state of the ozone layer. The 2016 flight will also have implications for aircraft performance and safety, as the Perlan 2 will allow aviation experts to analyze how high commercial aircraft can operate.