An engine-less aircraft designed to eventually reach the edge of space has successfully performed its first test flight in Oregon, USA, this week.
The Perlan 2 glider, backed by Airbus, was flown to the altitude of 1,524m during the test by Nasa pilots Jim Payne and Morgan Sandercock and remained airborne for about 35 minutes.
The team behind the project hopes the 816kg sailplane will be able to make it to almost 30km above the Earth’s surface next year.
"This first flight is a milestone and we're very impressed," said Allen McArtor, chairman of Airbus North America.
Brainchild of former US Air Force jet pilot Einar Enevoldson, Perlan 2 is a science plane designed to study mountain waves that create the ozone hole, a phenomenon thus far little understood.
"We used to believe the stratosphere was flat, without a lot of weather, but it turns out that's not entirely true," said Project Perlan’s CEO Ed Warnock. "The largest waves of wind on the planet go up to the stratosphere."
To reach its target altitude, the plane will be first towed by a motorised plane before being released to continue the journey by harnessing the power of the wind. Its 24m long wings allow Perlan 2 to efficiently surf on the wind and climb into the stratospheric altitudes with air density only three per cent of that encountered by normal aircraft. The conditions Perlan 2 will encounter are similar to those on Mars.
Although primarily a scientific non-profit venture run by volunteers, Perlan 2 may hold some promises for the nascent sub-orbital space tourism industry.
"This is building the breadth of knowledge we possess about the upper atmosphere," the Airbus executive said. "Who knows, maybe this will, in 30 years, contribute to suborbital passenger flight technology?"