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Airbus' Mars plane precursor survives pressure test

Perlan glider's cockpit ready for piloted stratospheric 90,000-foot mission

By Simon Sharwood, 10 Mar 2016

VIDEO Airbus has conducted a new test of a glider it thinks could one day fly on Mars.

But Mars has such a thin atmosphere, we hear you ask, how could Bernoulli's Principle work in such a rarified gaseous environment?

Airbus' Perlan 2 glider project is designed to address just such atmospheric problems, as it aims to create a glider capable of ascending into Earth's stratosphere at altitudes of 90,000 feet. Perlan's goal is doing science up there, on grounds that it's kind of useful to know more about the thin sheath of gases that makes life possible.

To reach 90,000 feet Perlan 2 will seek out atmospheric ridges, areas where mountains cause very significant upwards air flow. The plane will then surf those air flows and, thanks to very low weight and very large wing area should be able to get enough lift to stay aloft. Building something light enough to glide at 90,000 feet is complicated by the project's aim of offering crew an environment that doesn't require a space suit or pressure suit.

Perlan I flew in 2010 and reached 50,000 feet, so Airbus already has some experience. The company this week revealed that in late February it staged the first pressurised Perlan II flight, to test the cockpit.

Those trials were mostly successful: bad weather meant it couldn't fly as often as hoped but the company declares the cockpit life support systems were “validated”.

The project now plans a trip to Argentina, to a region where air flows from Antarctica will give it a chance of reaching 90,000 feet.

And Mars? Obviously it's not on the agenda any time soon. But Perlan II weighs just 1,800 pounds before its two pilots clamber aboard, just a tick under the Curiosity rover's 2,000 pound weight. Mars' atmospheric pressure is lower than that in the stratosphere – about 0.6 per cent of Earth's mean compared to two per cent in the stratosphere – but Airbus and the not-for-profit Perlan effort think that getting to Earth's stratosphere will at least serve as proof-of-concept for winged gliders on the red planet. &Reg;

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