Can an airplane fly in space?


Answering this question, you first need to decide what to consider as space, because one thing is to reach the formal boundary of space at 100 km above sea level, and quite another thing is at least the orbit of the ISS.

I must say that not a single modern aircraft, using the lift of the wing, can rise to an altitude of even 100 kilometers. The density of the atmosphere rapidly decreases with the climb and very soon it becomes simply insufficient to create lift.

At the same time, it is not very difficult to launch an aircraft into orbit with the help of rocket engines and then use the wings to land the aircraft. This will require a specially designed aircraft, but in general it is feasible.

The first «space» aircraft was a hybrid of an aircraft and a North American X-15 rocket plane. An ordinary aircraft (B-52 bomber) raises it to a height of 8.5 km, after which the aircraft uses jet engines. This plane made several flights at altitudes above 50 miles (80 kilometers), which is considered the boundary of space by the US Air Force standards, and also twice exceeded an altitude of 100 kilometers.

However, if we understand by space even a low-earth orbit, then the X-15 aircraft will no longer be enough. For these purposes, several orbital aircraft or spaceplanes have been developed (and are currently being developed).

Orbital aircraft include such machines as the American Space Shuttle and the domestic Buran, as well as those built by private companies SpaceShipOne, SpaceShipTwo, Boeing X-38, etc.

If we restrict ourselves to airplanes in the usual sense of the word. Those. aircraft using jet engines and wing lift, then, alas, none of them could even come close to the edge of space. The altitude record belongs to the Lockheed S-71 Blackbird aircraft, which managed to climb to an altitude of just under 26 kilometers.

26 kilometers is very high, but still within the earth’s atmosphere. Without an atmosphere, none of the regular aircraft can fly. Strictly speaking, even aircraft engines will not be able to work, since an air-jet engine constantly draws air from the atmosphere and uses it as part of the jet mass. The wings, of course, will also not be able to create lift.

If any modern aircraft somehow finds itself in orbit, then there are three possibilities. If the spacecraft that will launch the plane into orbit also gives it the required orbital speed, then for some time the plane will revolve around the Earth like an artificial satellite. After a while, however, it will leave orbit and burn up in the atmosphere.

If the speed of the aircraft is insufficient, then regardless of the actions of the crew, the aircraft will fall to Earth and burn up in the atmosphere. There is no action by the pilots to bring the plane into controlled gliding, as shuttles do. The problem is that the plane has time to burn before the atmosphere is dense enough for gliding to be possible.

Spaceplanes are equipped with a special heat shield that absorbs the lion’s share of thermal energy and protects the ship from overheating. An ordinary plane, not equipped with something like this, will be doomed.