Solar wing breaks records, but flies short of mark
BARKING SANDS, Kaua'i NASA's solar-powered flying wing soared past previous altitude records for non-rocket powered aircraft today, but failed to reach NASA's goal of 100,000 feet.
NASA's solar-powered Helios Prototype flying wing soars today over Kaua'i as it attempts to reach an altitude of 100,000 feet.
"It's a real milestone of flight," said NASA spokesman Alan Brown. "It's a landmark achievement, and especially to do it with a solar aircraft that is non-polluting. It is a triumph of technology in this area."
Brown said the record will be considered unofficial until it is certified by the National Aeronautics Association, the official record-keeping agency.
The altitude record for propeller-driven aircraft was 80,200 feet, set by a smaller version of the craft, Pathfinder Plus, in 1998. The record for a non-rocket craft was 85,068 feet, set by a Lockheed SR-71 jet-powered aircraft in 1976.
The Helios Prototype, driven by 14 propellers turned by small 2-horsepower electric motors, reached 96,500 feet before NASA officials decided to bring it down, Brown said.
With thinning air and slanting sunlight, the remotely controlled Helios had reached a "zero climb rate," Brown said.
NASA officials have said the Helios is capable of reaching 103,000 feet under ideal weather conditions, three times higher than commercial jet-powered aircraft.
Because the craft gets its electricity from 65,000 solar cells covering the wing, the takeoff required full sunshine. Cloud cover over western Kauai had canceled two weekend takeoff attempts.
Its 247-foot wingspan is greater than that of a Boeing 747, and it weighs just 1,557 pounds, less than many cars.
Since the atmosphere at 100,000 feet is similar to the thin Martian atmosphere, NASA hopes Helios will help engineers plan Mars aircraft designs, said Kevin Petersen, director of NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
Petersen said a solar-powered aircraft flying on Mars could survey a lot more area than a vehicle on the ground.
Because it doesn't need to land for refueling, Helios also is envisioned as a low-cost alternative to broadcast-relay or weather satellites in Earth orbit.