The famous phrase from Star Trek captures the promise of the joy of scientific exploration, “Boldly going where no one has gone before.”  The science of the Perlan Project is about doing something that has never been done before and understanding what has never been understood before.  Only a few people have been to the edge of space.  We are going to explore the edge of space without a polluting engine on the clean pure wings of a glider.  We are just beginning to clearly understand what happens there that impacts the weather around the globe. Someday soon, airliners will fly at these heights and we are pioneers that will map the paths through the giant mountain waves that can trigger the strongest turbulence in the air. The Perlan flights will boldly seek knowledge where few have flown before.

Atmospheric Research

The existence of enhanced aviation-based datasets in the stratosphere will be of use in the advancement of scientific understanding of several phenomena that have an impact on aircraft performance and safety when they fly between ~15 and 30 km MSL. The experimental carbon fiber partially pressurized Perlan glider will fly at the altitudes during the Perlan II Mission Flights. These elevations are above typical operational radiosonde datasets and often have little experimental data as well. Three groups of phenomena have been simulated with numerical models in this part of the mid-latitude atmosphere, however rarely has there been experimental data to validate these simulations. The Perlan Project represents a balanced effort among model – observation – theory.

Mountain Wave Breaking

Research will focus data acquisition over two complex terrain barriers, one important problem involves the structure and intensity of vertically propagating mountain/gravity waves and their amplification/breaking characteristics. While the mountains undoubtedly typically clearly “launch” these waves, a viable question remains concerning how the larger scale jet/front systems are perturbed by the terrain and subsequently create a favorable environment for wave breaking far above the complex terrain.

Impact on Avionic Systems

One of the aims of the Perlan Project is to attain an understanding of the interaction between stratospheric mountain waves and the polar vortex and their effects on the energy balance of the atmosphere. While the mountains undoubtedly typically clearly “launch” these waves, a viable question remains concerning how the larger scale jet/front systems are perturbed by the terrain and subsequently create a favorable environment for wave breaking far above the complex terrain.

Subtropical Tropopause /Jet / Frontal Structure

Research will also enable us to better understand the fundamental structure of the subtropical tropopause as well as the folding and mass transport across it. The transport of ozone and other constituents/aerosols in the stratosphere is important for aviation when the constituents may damage or adversely affect engine performance.

Impact on Cloud Formation Processes

Research will also aid in determining how and under what circulation environments very high level aerosol- nucleated ice clouds form and thrive in the upper elevations of the stratosphere. What are the vertical frontal features that can create cold/moist layers for unique microphysical processes at these levels? This will involve learning more about the dynamical and microphysical processes at work in the upper stratosphere. 

How We Get to Those Altitudes

To soar a glider to 90,000 feet without an engine – not possible! Yes, it is possible.  Steve Fossett and Einar Enevoldson soared the Perlan 1 glider to 50,722 feet on August 30, 2006 using “stratospheric mountain waves.” Mountain waves form when winds of at least 15 knots cross over a mountain range perpendicularly and the atmosphere is “stable” waves will form on the lee side of the mountains. A glider uses the upward moving part of this wave system to climb.

What sets the Perlan Mission apart from just gliding on mountain waves is that we require one critical additional element to enable us to soar into the stratosphere: The Polar Vortex. The maximum altitude of mountain is usually at the boundary between the troposphere and the stratosphere. This is because the cold air of the mountain wave encounters warmer air at the boundary and cannot rise further. Winds in the Polar Vortex can reach speeds of 260+ knots allowing the mountain waves to propagate upwards into the stratosphere. These are called “stratospheric mountain waves.” The Perlan 2 will use these waves to soar to the edge of space.

The Weather Research & Forecasting System (WRF) runs are now live.

Climate Change Impact

Research Theme #1: Combating Climate Change

In order to respond to climate change in a way that will make a difference, we need to be able to predict how climate will continue to change if we do nothing, and how it will change if we actually do something. To do that, we need good computer models of the climate. But our current climate models are very crude. One of the areas in which they are very crude is that our models assume that there is little interaction between the troposphere (the lowest layer of the atmosphere, the air we breathe) and the stratosphere (the layer above it).  But we know that that is false, they do interact. They exchange heat, air masses and chemicals. But we don’t know how or how much they do that.  Without knowing that, our models are guaranteed to be wrong, and therefore, our climate change actions may also be wrong.
With Airbus Perlan Mission II, we will be flying through the troposphere and high into the stratosphere, running experiments to gather data about heat, mass and chemical exchange between the two. We will make that data available to atmospheric scientists worldwide, who can use it to improve our climate models. Improved climate models will tell us:

  • How much the Earth will heat up and climate will change (a) even if humans were not contributing to climate change at all
  • How much the Earth will heat up and climate will change if we do continue using gasoline, kerosene and other fossil fuels and make no change
  • How much will we can slow down the Earth heating up and reduce climate change if we could convert to all clean fuels, such as solar, wind and hydro
  • Can we slow down or even stop the melting of the polar ice caps?

Without improved climate models, we will be guessing at what we need to do, and risking that we don’t do enough or do the wrong things.

Research Theme #2: Combating the Ozone Depletion

Ozone in the stratosphere filters out UV rays, protecting us from its harmful effects – which include premature skin aging, skin cancer and cataracts.  Ozone is most concentrated at 80,000 – 100,000 feet in altitude, exactly where we will fly.  Where the ozone is depleted, we see the effects.  There is a large ozone hole over the Antarctic region, including Australia.  As a result, Australians suffer the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. Each year, around 1,200 Australians die from what is an almost totally preventable disease.  But, to a lesser extent, the ozone is depleted around the world, and we see the effects in North America and Europe.
Human industrial activity is responsible for the vast majority of stratospheric ozone depletion.  In response to this, nations agreed to actions to reduce our impact on the ozone, notably the Montreal Protocol of 1987.  Among other things, certain chemicals known to cause ozone depletion, such as chlorofluorocarbons used in aerosols at the time, were banned.  As a result, current research suggests that we may have succeeded in stopping and possibly reversing ozone depletion.
But to know for sure, we need to measure how much chorine-based chemicals and ozone are actually in the stratosphere at those high altitudes.  By flying into the stratosphere, we can take direct air samples to find this out.  This will tell us how much more we need to do, and if in fact, ozone is replenishing.