Last week, Airbus’ Perlan Mission II glider broke its own altitude record by reaching 30,615 feet while flying over the Sierra Nevada mountains. The mission is part of Airbus’ initiative to eventually fly the glider without an engine to the edge of space to collect groundbreaking insights on high-altitude flight, weather and climate change. Because the glider operates without an engine, when it eventually reaches the edge of space in 2019, it will do so without polluting the atmosphere.
This month, the glider will deploy to Argentina for its second year of flight operations in Patagonia. Because the aircraft will operate at extreme altitudes, in only 3 percent of sea level atmospheric pressure, it will also be flying at true airspeeds fast than 0.5 Mach. The aircraft was designed to minimize flutter and manage shock wave formation.
“This past year our team gained invaluable insight and experience from flying the glider in
and around the Andes Mountains,” said Ed Warnock, CEO of The Perlan Project. “Using that information, we’ve made improvements to the aircraft that will help us have even greater success this year, first in Nevada and later in Argentina, if the wave and weather conditions are optimal.”
The glider is made mostly of composites. To make its fuselage, engineers 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 its composite construction, Airbus notes there have been a number of upgrades to the glider since its first flight in 2015, including additional heating for critical operational items, modifications to the control sticks, and flight simulator updates.