Airbus Perlan Mission II continued to make an impact in 2016, inspiring and connecting young minds around the world through its ambition to touch the edge of space.
A dream come true
For me, this was a dream, combining my hobbies and education in one. So, I reached out and explained that I had been passionately following the project.
Alec Guay is a mechanical engineering undergrad, student glider pilot and the university intern for Airbus Perlan Mission II. When he saw a call for graduate students posted on the Perlan blog last year, he jumped at the opportunity – even though he was still working on his bachelor’s degree.
One month later, he found himself on the phone with CEO Ed Warnock, and Guay joined the team in May 2016 as they prepared to ship the Perlan to Argentina for its long-awaited shot at the stratosphere.
By September, Airbus Perlan Mission II had started its six-week flight expedition in southern Patagonia, aiming to realise its goal of stratospheric flight.
While the stars – or rather, the winds – did not align to help the state-of-the-art glider ride a wave of mountain air to the edge of space, the mission did succeed in running scientific experiments, inspiring a new generation’s interest in STEM subjects and connecting communities across the Americas.
Education in El Calafate
On the ground in El Calafate, Argentina, one of Guay’s jobs was to work on the scientific experiments that were carried in the Perlan’s payload bays. This particular cargo was dreamed up by students aged 4 to 18.
Thanks to the Teachers in Space network, almost a dozen classrooms around the US collaborated with Perlan and schools in southern Patagonia to create CubeSat experiments, send them up on the glider, and collect and analyse the resulting data.
“If you’re sampling ozone, radiation or aerosols, for example, you can clearly see how contaminants change as weather systems come through.”
“Because Perlan II flies slowly in the mountain wave and the winds are very strong, we can stay in one spot,” explains Perlan’s chief pilot Jim Payne. “This allows sampling of the atmosphere over time from the same location.” And being engineless, there is no possibility of contamination.
While some students were interested in radiation, others were interested in...moss. Sixth-graders from Central Square Middle School in Syracuse, New York, wanted to know what happened to ground-dwelling moss when it spent time high in the atmosphere. They partnered with a school in El Calafate who sourced local moss for the experiment – which also contained a nanocomputer and an atmospheric gas sampler.
The two classes Skyped and emailed to figure out what needed to be done next. “They really built a relationship from 6,000 miles apart,” says Guay. The day their experiment flew, the Argentine kids were invited as guests of the Perlan team, touring the glider and ecstatically cheering when their project took off.
“I hope that young people who see the Perlan Project are inspired to study engineering and maths. It’s kind of amazing what you can do with just a small team of dedicated people who understand engineering.”
In addition to educational and community programming in Argentina, a project called Virtual Cockpit helped the crew connect with the rest of the world. Real-time telemetry data from the glider was fed into the Perlan mission’s website, where anyone could log on to see where the glider was, how high and fast it was flying, the wind speed and how it was climbing. Later, the collected data from the flights was uploaded to the site and participating students could access the information for further experimentation.
As we learned in Argentina, there are not that many good days. We want to make sure everything works 100%.
The Perlan team also ran experiments while in El Calafate. Chief Meteorologist Elizabeth Austin’s instrumentation measured temperatures and pressures that correlated with altitude, while dosimeters measured the radiation to which the pilots were exposed. Additional weather probing gleaned more information for future weather and flight forecasts.
Payne also tested the boundaries of the glider itself by ‘cold soaking’ the airframe, ie increasing altitude in steps while decreasing temperature in steps to ensure everything still functioned in the frigid temperatures of the upper atmosphere. In the process, the team noticed that Perlan’s air and oxygen bottle regulators were affected by the cold, and have decided to install heaters on them going forward. “If they freeze up, that’s a mission abort,” says Payne, as the pilots will have to descend to thicker air to compensate for the drop in cabin pressure.
The year ahead
“I think we’re in a good place. We’re at the point where we’re making refinements, and hopefully after this year we won’t even have to do that. Now it’s just a matter of watching everything closely.”
Today, Perlan is back at its home hangar in Minden, Nevada, and Alec Guay is in Massachusetts, shovelling the driveway and doing heat-transfer homework in his final year of university. But just as Perlan readies to ride again, Guay has signed up for Airbus Perlan Mission II’s second round this year.
The team will upgrade the air- and oxygen-bottle heaters, and also install a hatch indexing system, which will enable Perlan’s pilots to seal and pressurise their cabin while in the air. Previously, the hatch had to be sealed before takeoff and during the tow up to altitude, moisture would get trapped inside the warm cabin, later freezing in the higher elevations. Now, fresh air can circulate during the tow and when readying to ride the wave, pilots can seal the hatch ‘on the go’.
Because Perlan is so pioneering, I get to see first-hand some of the most innovative thought processes around engineering and flying.
The team wants to have the craft ready for flight by early March, when Minden’s mountain waves start cranking up. The goal is to fly as high as they can in Minden, 35-40,000 feet. By April, they expect some new CubeSats to arrive from interested schools, and last year’s projects will be up for another round of flights as well, again aiming, along with the Perlan, to reach 90,000 feet.
By May 2017, the Perlan will ship to Argentina, and Guay will rejoin the project. Last year, he extended his stay in Patagonia to work on the scouting gliders alongside the Perlan pilots, doing background checks in the Andes. His internship now focuses on engineering, studying composite materials, and working on the glider’s rebreather system and on a flight simulator the crew is developing in Minden.
“I went from learning about aeroelastic flutter in class to working on a flutter excitation system on an airframe. None of my fellow students have done that! I’ve picked up so much from the international team, not only the cultural exposure and improving my Spanish, but also learning about other engineering methods, says Guay.
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