The Airbus Perlan Mission II has outdistanced most television shows to come back for a fourth season series in its quest to reach the edge of space.
The sophisticated Perlan 2 glider has already surpassed the highest known flight of the U-2 spy plane and is now aiming to knock the SR71 Blackbird off its perch by reaching an altitude of 90,000ft and setting a new record for sustained, level flight.
The U-2 record was knocked off in 2018 when the team set a new world record of 76,124 feet pressure altitude, compared to the spy plane’s maximum known height of 74,000ft.
The Blackbird flew to more than 84,000ft but that was with powerful Pratt & Whitney engines.
By contrast, the unpowered Perlan 2 surfs rare stratospheric “mountain waves” to reach its unprecedented heights. These only occur for brief periods at certain times in a few places on Earth.
The mission kicked off its fourth season with a media briefing at its home in Minden, Nevada.
Improvements to the aircraft since last season include a visualization system for seeing rising air currents in the cockpit, spacecraft-capable oxygen rebreathers and parachutes to allow emergency descents in an emergency.
Should it reach its target altitude, the unpowered glider will have a true flight speed of 400mph and a passive pressurization system will protect the crew in an environment where the air density is less than two percent of what it is at sea level.
The Perlan 2 glider will begin its two-month shipping voyage to Argentina in June, and by the end of July, the team will have relocated its operations to the Patagonian town of El Calafate to make its latest attempt.
This is one of the areas where the atmospheric currents allow the team to soar into the stratosphere on rising air currents.
“We look forward to the contributions to our industry that this project will make this year, and are proud to have our name on such a history-making aircraft,” said C. Jeffrey Knittel, the head of title sponsor Airbus Americas.