Helios' attempt at record awaits clearer weather
MANA, Kaua'i High-level clouds over Kaua'i yesterday delayed NASA's bid to achieve a world altitude record by a nonrocket-powered aircraft for yet another day.
The unmanned, solar-electric powered aircraft is capable of reaching an altitude of 100,000 feet under ideal weather, NASA said. Saturday's scheduled flight was also delayed by clouds.
If today's flight is canceled, NASA will try again starting Thursday.
"I think the team is disappointed, but everybody realizes it's part of the business," said Kevin Petersen, director of NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif. "Our whole purpose is to be successful, so we look for the right opportunity."
NASA officials say the groundbreaking flight would lead to other major technological advancements in telecommunications and monitoring of Earth and Mars.
"I would consider this a real milestone of flight," Petersen said. "It's a first. We're involved in a lot of firsts at NASA Dryden, but I think this is very unique.
"We have the opportunity to go to altitudes with propeller driven aircraft where no one has gone before," Petersen said yesterday. "This is flight research at the finest."
At 1,557 pounds flying weight, the Helios is lighter than most automobiles.
The $15 million aircraft is controlled from the ground by desktop computers.
Its 14 specially designed propellers are driven by small 2-horsepower motors powered by 65,000 solar cells covering the wing.
The 247-foot wingspan is greater than that of a Boeing 747, yet is only 8 feet front to back.
Although the skies over Kaua'i appeared relatively clear yesterday, NASA officials said high-level cirrus clouds, which are made primarily of ice crystals, could add weight, reduce lift and disrupt the aircraft's balance.
The Helios soared 76,000 feet on its test flight last month. The record is 85,068 feet, set by an SR-71 aircraft in 1966.
As the summer daylight hours wane and the sun angle declines, the chance of a successful launch also diminishes, NASA officials said.
The flight was originally planned to break the altitude record on June 20, but was delayed because of weather problems and technical adjustments.
"People are just chomping at the bit; they're more than ready," said NASA program manager John Hicks. "This has been a long deployment, a very challenging operation, and they're eager to see this fly."
NASA said if the Helios does not lift off by late August or early September, it will have to wait until next summer.
NASA developed the Helios with AeroVironment Inc. of Monrovia, Calif., in a bid to build a remotely piloted aircraft that could replace space satellites for some applications.
The Helios is envisioned as a surrogate satellite, or low-cost telecommunications relay platform capable of providing high speed Internet access. It also is the best platform for measuring the earth's atmosphere at the 60,000- to 100,000-foot level, and can be used for such purposes as accurately tracking hurricanes, NASA said.