NASA Solar wing to launch from Hawaii


The giant, solar-powered flying wing NASA is testing in Hawaii could one day routinely sail the skies above Earth — and eventually Mars. But first it has to get off the ground. After poor weather delayed two liftoff attempts this weekend, NASA planned to try again Monday to achieve a world altitude record by a non-rocket powered aircraft with the Helios Prototype.

The Helios will attempt to reach an altitude of 100,000 feet (30,000 meters) — three times higher than any commercial jet — in ideal weather, NASA said.

Since the atmosphere at that altitude is expected to be similar to the Martian atmosphere, the data collected from the Helios at high altitudes will also help engineers plan for future Mars aircraft designs, NASA said.

“So flying at 100,000 feet will give us some technology anchors for developing an aircraft that could fly on Mars,” said Kevin Petersen, director of NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Petersen said flying a solar-powered aircraft over Mars could survey a lot more area than a vehicle on the ground.

NASA also says the flight off the Hawaiian island of Kauai could lead to other major technological advancements in telecommunications and atmospheric monitoring.

The Helios is envisioned as a surrogate satellite, or low-cost telecommunications relay platform capable of providing more efficient broadcast feeds, high speed Internet access and wireless communications. It also is the best platform for measuring the earth’s atmosphere at the 60,000- to 100,000-foot (18,000-30,000 meter) level, and can be used for such purposes as accurately tracking hurricanes, NASA said.

The US$15 million aircraft is controlled from the ground by using 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 (74-meter) wingspan is greater than that of a Boeing 747, yet is only 8 feet (2.4 meters) front to back. The flight scheduled for Saturday was delayed by heavy clouds. On Sunday, the skies over Kauai appeared relatively clear, but NASA officials said high level cirrus clouds could add weight, reduce lift and disrupt the aircraft’s balance.

If Monday’s flight is canceled, NASA will try again starting Thursday.