A new world record altitude of 96,500 feet over the Pacific Ocean was reached by the solar-powered Helios Prototype flying wing at 4:08 p.m. Hawaii Standard Time (HST), Aug. 13, fulfilling the expectations of engineers from NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center and AeroVironment, Inc., builders of the 247-ft. wing. This is the first time a non-rocket powered aircraft has maintained flight this far above the earth. 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.
Daniel S. Goldin, NASA Administrator, 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 took off from the U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility on the Hawaiian island of Kauai at 8:48 a.m. HST. Flying at about 25 miles an hour, the mission lasted nearly 17 hours, landing at 1:43 a.m. Aug. 14.
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 record altitude was achieved 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.
"This is like going to the Olympics and setting a new world record for engineers," said NASA Dryden Flight Research Center solar aircraft project manager John Del Frate. "This achievement did not come easily. Thousands of things had to work right for something like this to come together."
Production variants of Helios might see service as long-term earth environmental monitors, as well 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.
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