Wind surfing to the edge of space

Scientists plan to explore mountain waves by flying the Perlan II glider to the record-breaking stratospheric altitude of 90,000ft

When winds meet mountain ranges they are diverted upwards to follow the slopes. But before descending again winds can continue on an upward path, shooting towards space.

Under the right conditions, the winds can bounce along in an undulating up-and-down pattern for hundreds of miles, a pattern known as lee or mountain waves.

These mountain waves sometimes become visible when they give rise to clouds, known as altocumulus standing lenticular clouds, which appear to remain stationary over mountain peaks.

Lenticular clouds seen over Argentina.
Lenticular clouds seen over Argentina. Photograph: Art Wolfe/Getty Images

Little is known about what happens at high altitudes where such winds may interact with the polar vortex. However, in a research project, a new type of manned glider is to surf mountain waves and explore their greatest altitudes as well as collect data about the Earth’s atmosphere and its ozone layer.

The glider, known as Perlan II, developed in the US by aviators and scientists with the Airbus Group, goes to Patagonia this May to start flight testing over the Andes.

A tow plane will release the aircraft at 5,000ft, where it should catch a mountain wave. The aim is to reach 90,000ft (27,430 metres), which would be a record for a glider.

At this stratospheric altitude, where the air is just 3% as dense as at ground level, the glider will surf at 400 miles an hour with no external power. The aircraft, which has a crew of two, has no engine, partly to save weight, partly so that atmospheric samples can be collected without a contamination risk.

Perlan’s special safety equipment includes a recovery parachute for the entire sailplane to descend to the ground in the event of a wipeout.

  • This article was amended on 24 May 2017. The Perlan project will explore the southern polar vortex, not the northern as stated in the caption.


David Hambling

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Space radiation with extra punch a hazard for high flying aircraft
Weatherwatch Solar winds sending charged particles to Earth in ‘clouds’ can double normal exposure to radiation on long-haul flights

David Hambling

07, Mar, 2017 @9:30 PM

Article image
Migrants winging it as the wind blows
Weatherwatch Fine spring days open the door to birds heading to the UK to breed but it is also a time of shifting winds, even icy northerlies

Stephen Moss

04, Apr, 2017 @8:30 PM

Article image
How to sail faster than the wind
Weatherwatch The yacht Vestas Sailrocket 2 has shown that, when it comes to breaking speed records, clever design and cunning technique are more important than strong winds

David Hambling

17, Nov, 2016 @9:30 PM

Article image
Predicting weather space
David Hambling on an investigation of how storms affect the ionosphere that could lead to a weather forecast for satellite operators

David Hambling

28, Apr, 2016 @8:30 PM

Article image
Aircraft contrails bring warmer nights and conspiracy theories
Scientists agree that aircraft pollution affects surface temperatures, but some believe they have a darker side

Paul Brown

16, May, 2016 @8:30 PM

Article image
Weatherwatch: how aircraft protect themselves against rain and dust
The metal prongs you see on plane wings are static discharge wicks, providing protection against static electricity

David Hambling

25, Jul, 2018 @8:30 PM

Article image
A good year for chionophiles
Kate Ravilious on the small, but important, patches of snow that cling throughout the summer to Scotland’s crags and gullies

Kate Ravilious

08, Nov, 2015 @9:30 PM

Article image
Weatherwatch: California's wildfires worsened by local wind conditions
Sundowner winds cause fires compared by firefighters to speeding freight trains

David Hambling

22, Aug, 2018 @8:30 PM

Article image
Space agency launches crowdsourced weather forecasting project
ESA project aims to harness power of smartphones to match atmospheric conditions to weather on ground

Paul Brown

30, Mar, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
Super-typhoon Meranti whips up wind speeds in Pacific to 180mph
Weatherwatch Intense tropical storm batters western Pacific as heatwave in mainland Europe brings 45C to Spain

Ashley Melis (MetDesk)

14, Sep, 2016 @8:30 PM