Frederick A. Johnsen
NASA SOLAR AIRCRAFT SETS ALTITUDE RECORD; COMMUNICATIONS, ENVIRONMENTAL BREAKTHROUGHS EXPECTED
NASA's solar-powered, propeller-driven Helios aircraft set a new world record altitude of 96,500 feet on Monday, surpassing the old record for aircraft without rocket power by more than 10,000 feet. Sustained operations at that altitude promise to enable capabilities ranging from environmental monitoring to radically improved communications on Earth to simulating flight in the atmosphere of Mars.
NASA Adminstrator Daniel S. Goldin, who has been a strong supporter of solar-powered flight, said, "This is a ground breaking accomplishment which will advance this technology to new heights."
The remotely piloted wing, built by AeroVironment, Inc., Monrovia, CA, took off from the U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility on the Hawaiian island of Kauai at 8:48 a.m. local time. Flying at about 25 miles an hour, the aircraft stayed aloft almost 17 hours, passing the old altitude records of 80,200 feet for propeller-driven aircraft and 85,068 feet for any aircraft not powered by rockets. Helios reached its highest altitude at 4:08 p.m. local time and landed at 1:43 a.m. Tuesday local time.
The record flight sets the stage for follow-on missions that will use a regenerative fuel system now under development to enable Helios to remain aloft 24 hours a day for months at a time. The aircraft reached record altitude during daylight hours, relying on solar cells on the wing's surface to provide electrical power. Descent after dark was possible as the 14 electric motors were no longer needed to maintain altitude. During descent the propellers acted as generators, providing electrical power to control the aircraft.
Production variants of Helios might see service as long-term Earth environmental monitors or as communications relays, reducing dependence on satellites and providing service in areas not covered by satellites. The successful flight at high altitude also provides NASA with information about flight on Mars, since the atmosphere at that height above Earth replicates the atmosphere near the Martian surface.