The Airbus Perlan 2 glider made a successful first flight on Wednesday, paving the way for a promising future of high altitude soaring. The manned aircraft was towed to an altitude of 5,000 feet before it was released from its tether, but next year the Perlan Project aims to break records by sending it nearly 20 times higher.

Wednesday’s flight of the Perlan 2 took place from Redmond Municipal Airport -Roberts Field (RDM) in Redmond, Oregon, which is just a few minutes north of the Central Oregon resort town of Bend. When the Perlan 2 is tested sometime next year at its target altitude of 90,000 feet, with air density of less than two percent of sea level, it will be operating in conditions near those of the Martian atmosphere.

Nacreous clouds over Asker, Norway.

The Perlan name refers to iridescent clouds in the stratosphere called nacreous clouds. These are sometimes also referred to as Mother of Pearl clouds for their vivid colors. They occur between altitudes 49,000 feet and 82,000 feet.

Advertisement

The Perlan 2 glider has an 84-foot wingspan and is made from composites. It carries two occupants, life support systems, a pair of parachutes in case of an emergency and a suite of scientific instruments, all with a gross weight of just 1,800 pounds. That’s about the same as the Volkswagen Type 1 Beetles owned by our Jalopnik comrades Jason Torchinsky and Raphael Orlove.

The first Perlan mission over Argentina in 2006.

As the name suggests, there was a Perlan mission that preceded this week’s milestone. The first Perlan mission took place over Argentina in 2006, when pilots Steve Fossett (who was tragically killed in a 2007 crash) and Einar Enevoldson soared to a record breaking 50,722 feet aboard a modified DG-505M glider. It likely could’ve achieved a higher altitude, except the glider wasn’t pressurized. This caused an expansion in the pilots’ pressure suits, which prevented them from being able to manipulate the aircraft’s flight controls. Fossett and Enevoldson were able to safely return to Earth, but the team realized the need for a custom-built and pressurized glider for future flights. The glider used in the first Perlan mission is now on permanent display at The Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington.

Advertisement

Photo credit: Top shot via embedded YouTube/Airbus, Middle shot - Mathiasm/Wikicommons, Bottom shot - The Museum of Flight

Follow the author on Twitter: @collinkrum