Airbus is best known for its civilian and military transport jets. But its work on the Perlan 2 glider is some of its most ambitious. The Perlan 2 is designed to reach the edge of space without an engine.

Everyone’s favorite phrase when talking about space is “space is hard.” One of the reasons for this is because of the massive amounts of thrust needed to get satellites and astronauts into space. When something goes wrong, it tends to lead to catastrophic explosions like the recent SpaceX mishap.

This glider gets rid of the massive engines required to get to space.

Yesterday, the Perlan 2 glider began the first steps toward reaching the edge of space. It completed its first flight 5,000 feet above Roberts Field in Oregon.

“We’re extremely excited about the successful first flight of the Perlan 2 glider,” said Ed Warnock, CEO of the Perlan Project. “This marks a major breakthrough in aviation innovation, one that will allow winged exploration of the atmosphere at the edge of space and lead to new discoveries to unravel some of the continuing mysteries of weather, climate change and ozone depletion.”

In 2016, Airbus expects flights to reach 90,000 feet. That’s higher than the SR-71 used to fly at. Here’s another way to put that into perspective. Remember Felix Baumgartner’s freefall in 2012? He was about 128,100 feet high when he jumped. If next year’s test flights are successful, Perlan 2 will fly 90,000 feet above the Earth at more than 400 miles per hour.

The key is still air currents and location

You’re probably wondering how a glider can reach an altitude of 90,000 feet? Isn’t the air thin up there? Yep. It’s comparable to atmospheric conditions on Mars.

It’s all about location. Next year’s flight, slated for July, won’t be happening in Oregon. Airbus will head to Argentina to try to hit 90,000 feet. Airbus says they will aim to ride air currents that, “in certain mountainous regions near the north and south poles, can reach into the stratosphere.”

Besides trying to hit 90,000 feet in a glider, Perlan 2 will also be equipped with a variety of scientific instruments. These instruments will take measurements on everything from weather and climate change to the Ozone layer. Because Perlan 2 is a glider, it can take untainted air samples from the stratosphere and “measure the levels of ozone-damaging chemicals and assess whether the ozone layer is replenishing or still depleting.”

Next July’s flight marks Phase 2 for the Perlan 2 glider. Phase 3 is in May 2019, and Airbus will see if Perlan 2 can make it to 100,000 feet. The glider will also be travelling faster and will need new transonic wings. The May 2019 flight will explore the Polar Vortex in the northern hemisphere.

If Perlan 2’s flights in 2016 and 2019 are successful, the implications are huge. I’m most interested in the applications to space travel. Imagine scaled-down versions of Perlan 2 cruising above the surface of Mars? That would be pretty damn epic.

Interested in Perlan 2’s specs? Check out this page to read more about the glider.