How Airbus plans to reach the edge of space with an engineless plane

If nobody had told me beforehand that the Perlan 2 glider plane was about to make history, I never would’ve guessed there was anything special about it.

As I watched it gently lift off from the runway at Roberts Field, I couldn’t help but think how unremarkable it probably looked to any uninitiated bystanders that might’ve been staring up from the ground. The plane isn’t particularly large; it doesn’t fly very fast; and it barely has enough space to hold two people. Hell, it can’t even get airborne without being towed by another plane because it isn’t equipped with a propulsion system of any sort. To the layman, it probably looked incredibly commonplace and boring — but when you learn that it’s somehow capable of flying to the edge of space without an engine, it suddenly becomes the most fascinating thing around.

After the the plane touched down and everyone swarmed the runway with cameras and microphones, I overheard the co-pilot say that it only reached a height of about 5,000 feet during the test — nowhere near the height it’ll attempt to reach next year in Argentina. Today’s flight was just the maiden voyage — the first of many test runs that’ll happen between now and 2016, when the Perlan team will attempt to dethrone the mighty SR-71 Blackbird and break the current altitude record for winged aircraft. In that mission, the team is shooting for 90,000 feet. For reference, most commercial airliners set their cruising altitude somewhere around 39,000 feet — and they’ve got jet engines to get them there.

Catch a wave and you’re sittin’ on top of the world

So how exactly do you get an engineless plane to the edge of space? To get an answer, I went straight to the world’s leading authority on the subject: Einar Enevoldson — the founder of the Perlan Project, veteran pilot, and one of the world’s leading authorities on stratospheric mountain waves — the massive air currents that Perlan 2 pilots intend to “surf”on to reach 90,000 feet.

Before could even open my mouth to ask the question, somebody behind me in the audience shouted out, “Can you very simply explain stratospheric mountain waves, for those of us who don’t know what they are?”

Ever seen a hawk or a seagull playing in an updraft? Flying a glider in a mountain wave is basically the same thing.

Without skipping a beat, Enevoldson — one of the sharpest octogenarians I’ve ever met — replied with “That’s easy — no!” The crowd giggled and then settled in for the real answer, but it never came. Enevoldoson wasn’t just being cheeky — it turns out that mountain waves are incredibly complex phenomena, and they’re difficult to explain in any short format. I actually had to chase down the Perlan 2 crew after the press conference ended just to get a detailed answer.

Basically, when strong winds cross over a mountain range and the atmosphere above them is stable, massive waves of air will form on the lee side of the mountain. The wind rushing down the back side of the mountain causes an atmospheric disturbance, and then a couple miles downwind there’s a rebound area, where the air is rising. With the right conditions and a skilled pilot, it’s possible to ride these updrafts high into the upper atmosphere. Ever seen a hawk or a seagull playing in an updraft? Flying a glider in a mountain wave is basically the same thing, just on a much larger scale.

“Unless you’ve flown in a wave, it’s hard to understand the energy that’s available in the atmosphere,” Perlan Project Chief Pilot Jim Payne told me. I’ve seen lift rates of 3,000 feet per minute on some waves — but of course when you see that much lift, there’s a corresponding area where it’s going down just as fast. You’ve got to be careful to avoid those areas, but it’s a phenomenon that’s just absolutely wonderful.”

Thing is, you can’t ride just any old mountain wave into the stratosphere. The common ones simply don’t go that high, and only reach into the middle of the troposphere — but over the past couple decades, the Perlan team has pinpointed where the really big ones happen. If you want to surf the world’s gnarliest mountain waves, you go to Argentina.

According to the Perlan team, Argentina’s low latitude and high mountain ranges make it an ideal location for stratospheric waves to form. The science is dizzyingly complicated, but all you really need to know is that a confluence of different atmospheric events take place over the country’s mountain ranges during the winter months, which together allow some mountain waves to propagate much higher into the atmosphere than they normally would.

Back in 2006, Perlan Project founder Einar Enevoldson and adventurer Steve Fosset proved that these waves can reach incredible heights by taking the Perlan 1 glider up to 50,722 feet — and they would’ve gone higher too, had their jumpsuits not inflated in the high altitude and made it difficult to fly the plane. That was the moment when they decided to build a glider with a pressurized cabin, and the Perlan 2 project was born.

For science; not just for the record books

If the Perlan 2 team achieves its goal and breaks 90,000 feet, it’ll secure its place in the record books. But mere record breaking isn’t the goal of the mission — there’s a much more noble purpose behind all this. 

“There’s still wonderful adventures and discoveries to be made. The sky is not the limit. The sky is where we live.”

The primary mission of the Perlan Project is scientific discovery. The team wants to collect atmospheric data from the tropopause — the “boundary” between the troposphere and the stratosphere — so that we can better understand climate change. Historically, scientists have assumed that these two atmospheric zones don’t mix and interact, but new studies have shown that this isn’t necessarily the case. Scientists now know that Earth’s lower atmospheric zones do in fact churn and mix together. They exchange heat, air masses, and chemicals — but scientists don’t currently know how exactly it occurs, to what extent this mixing happens, and what effects the phenomenon has on the global climate.

Figuring out this stuff is important, because many of our current climate models are very crude, and assume that there’s very little interaction between the troposphere (lowest layer of our atmosphere) and the stratosphere (the layer above it).  So in order to build a more complete climate model and gain a better understanding of how humans are affecting climate change, we need better atmospheric data from the tropopause.

The thing is, gathering information from the turbulent parts of the atmosphere is tricky. Contrary to what you might assume, you couldn’t get the job done with a sensor studded weather balloon. “A balloon gets blown downwind,” co pilot Morgan explained. “It can’t hover in place; it can’t stay in one spot for two or thee hours; and it can’t take a perfectly vertical profile of a mountain wave. We think in this rising part of the wave is where most of the important processes are occurring related to ozone destruction, so we want to get lots of samples in that range.”

Drew Prindle/Digital Trends
Drew Prindle/Digital Trends

Gathering new atmospheric data is the main goal here, but it’s really just the beginning. No aircraft has ever flown higher than 82,000 feet, so while the Perlan 2 is up there gathering atmospheric data, it’ll also provide us with valuable information on how winged aircraft behave in the upper atmosphere. When you’re up that high, the density of the atmosphere is considerably lower, so planes need to fly faster to generate enough lift, and their wings behave differently. Furthermore, in terms of density, the atmosphere up at 90,000 feet is extremely similar to the density of the Martian atmosphere, so any insights that the Perlan crew gains will be invaluable when it comes time to build aircraft that can fly on Mars.

“The important thing to remember is that not everything has been discovered,” Enevoldson told the audience. “There’s still wonderful adventures and discoveries to be made. Many of us tell us tell people that the ‘sky’s the limit’ — but the sky is not the limit. The sky is where we live.”

Product Review

Airselfie 2 may as well be a GoPro stapled to a drunk hummingbird

On paper, the Airselfie 2 is marketed as flying photographer that fits in your pocket and snaps selfies from the sky. Unfortunately it’s more like a HandiCam controlled by a swarm of intoxicated bumblebees

The best free-to-play games you can play right now

Believe it or not, free-to-play games have evolved into engaging, enjoyable experiences. Here are a few of our favorites that you can play right now, including Warframe and the perennially-popular League of Legends.

Get your Sagan on with 60 awe-inspiring photos of the final frontier

Few things instill a sense of wonder quite like the final frontier. The best space photos show off the beauty of Earth, our solar system, and the far corners of the universe. Here are our current favorites.

Ambitious but not rubbish: The best 'Top Gear' episodes

Since its relaunch in 2002, 'Top Gear' has become required viewing for any serious gearhead. The great moments from this show may seem too numerous to count, but we've managed to pick some of the highlights from the first 25 seasons.
Emerging Tech

Pairs of supermassive black holes spotted in colliding galaxies

Astronomers have discovered several pairs of supermassive black holes in galaxies that are colliding with each other. These black holes will spiral closer and closer together and eventually merge into one supermassive black hole.
Emerging Tech

Quantum-based accelerometer can locate objects without GPS

Researchers have created a quantum "compass" that allows navigation without satellites. The instrument, technically called a standalone quantum accelerometer, is small enough to be transportable and has a very high level of accuracy.
Emerging Tech

Michigan’s former transportation chief has some advice for wannabe smart cities

After 31 years as Michigan’s transportation director, Kirk Steudle has seen it all, particularly with smart city projects. He spoke with Digital Trends recently about what makes smart cities work, and offers advice along the way.
Emerging Tech

Ancient continent discovered beneath the ice of Antarctica

Antarctica could be hiding the remains of a long-lost continent. Scientists created a 3D map of the crust beneath the Antarctic ice sheet which shows a similarity to the crust in Australia and India, suggesting they used to be joined.
Emerging Tech

Rocket Lab steps into spotlight with its first commercial rocket launch

Rocket Lab has deployed multiple small satellites into orbit in its first notable commercial launch. Its New Zealand-born boss said the success means "rapid and reliable access to space is now a reality for small satellites."
Emerging Tech

Alibaba’s Singles’ Day sale smashes online shopping records

The annual online shopping frenzy that is Singles' Day this year raked in $30.8 billion, up from $25 billion last time around. The Alibaba-organized event generates more in sales than Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined.
Emerging Tech

Watch this lab-grown heart tissue beat just like the real thing

A team of researchers in Germany have used stem cells to create a lab-grown human heart tissue which actually beats, as well as responding to drugs in the same way as the real thing.
Emerging Tech

Shipping crate filled with 3D-printing robots may be the future of construction

Autodesk has created a robot-filled shipping container which may represent the future of construction work. The crate contains two robots able to 3D print custom components for building sites.
Emerging Tech

Sticking these tiny needles in your eye may help fight blindness

An eye patch covered in tiny needles sounds like a torture device. In fact, it's a potential new medical treatment for eye diseases like glaucoma and macular degeneration. Here's how it works.
Emerging Tech

Bottle-flipping robots may be the most millennial thing we’ve ever seen

Until drones start vaping, you're unlikely to see anything more millennial than a recent contest in Japan in which robots competed to pull off some seriously impressive bottle-flipping feats.