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A glider just set a new engineless flight record by soaring to 52,000 feet

Pilots have set a new altitude record for engineless gliding, as the Airbus Perlan Mission II this week soared to heights of more than 52,000 feet over the Patagonia region of Argentina. The glider record beat the previous altitude gliding world record of 50,727 feet, set by Perlan Project founder Einar Enevoldson and lead sponsor Steve Fossett back in 2006.

The feat was achieved using a naturally occurring phenomenon known as stratospheric mountain waves, which form when winds of at least 15 knots cross over a mountain range perpendicularly. These mountain waves allowed the glider to climb to hitherto unimagined heights.

“World records are notable achievements, but they’re really only milestones on the way to our primary goals,” James Darcy, head of external communications for Airbus, told Digital Trends. “Airbus Perlan Mission II is first and foremost a research mission, collecting data on everything from high-altitude aerodynamics to the health of the ozone layer, and the accuracy of climate-change models. The aircraft is a unique research platform for atmospheric research because, unlike a powered aircraft, it does not heat or pollute the air around it as it is collecting data. And unlike a weather balloon, it can soar in one place in the stratosphere for long periods and return to the place from which it took off.”

The aerodynamics of Perlan are interesting to Airbus for a couple of reasons. First and foremost is the inspirational nature of the Perlan Project, since soaring to the edge of space without an engine represents a seemingly impossible goal that, Airbus hopes, will appeal to the kind of STEM talent it wants to attract. Flying at high altitude could also potentially free up the increasingly congested commercial airspace at lower altitudes.

Most intriguing, however, is the parallel that super high altitudes hold to the atmosphere on Mars. “The similarity between the atmosphere at 90,000 feet and the atmosphere on Mars is in itself interesting to us, because it means that Perlan will provide us insight into the viability of wing-borne aviation over the Martian surface someday,” Darcy said. “This is especially relevant to us, given our extensive involvement in the Orion spacecraft program, which may someday carry humans to Mars.”

Right now, the Perlan team is staying put for another couple of weeks until the mountain wave season draws to a close. Should Mother Nature deliver the right conditions, the hope is that the team will be able to get another flight in. The ultimate goal is to fly to 90,000 feet: higher than any other aircraft in history has flown in level, controlled flight supported by its wings.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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