Athena Technologies, , announced another milestone this week as its GuideStar(tm) fully integrated miniature flight control system successfully controlled a robotic aircraft above 100,000 feet.

The flight was the NASA/Aurora “MarsFlyer” aircraft, an experimental prototype of a planetary research aircraft. On Thursday, September 19 MarsFlyer was launched under a helium balloon from Tillamook, Oregon. The aircraft’s wings and tail were folded to allow packaging in a planetary heat shield. Ninety minutes later the balloon released the MarsFlyer at an altitude of 100,900 feet (31 km). The MarsFlyer successfully unfolded and descended on a 93 minute fully autonomous descent to landing back at Tillamook. The airplane was controlled throughout its flight by an Athena Technologies GuideStar GS-111 flight control system.

“This flight required that the GuideStar be initialized on the ground, sit upside down for half an hour while the balloon was readied for launch, hang nose-down for ninety minutes during ascent, then control the transition through an extreme mach-density flight envelope with the aircraft unfolding and executing the pullout maneuver, identify the correct bearing back to base and then guide the aircraft through precise patterns on its descent. All of this happened in a Mars simulated flight mission, fully autonomous from vertical launch to the approach for landing using our existing GuideStar system that handled the challenging aerodynamic uncertainty through real time envelope protection flight control laws and the unique Kalman filtered sensor suite and control algorithms,” said Dr. Dave Vos, Athena’s Chief Technology Officer. “We’re extremely pleased with the results.” John Langford, President of Athena Technologies comments, “The Athena GuideStar product has demonstrated its maturity and capabilities throughout the flight envelope in a Mars like environment and in a demanding mission requirement.”

Aurora project manager for the MarsFlyer, Jean-Charles Lede, said that a preliminary analysis of the flight data shows the deployment sequence went flawlessly. The flight was smooth and stable, matching preflight predictions. Robert Braun, the project manager for the plane at the NASA Langley Research Center added, “It’s a tremendous day, I don’t think this has been done before,” Braun told “This is a real first. It really shows how an airplane system can be deployed and fly in a tenuous atmosphere like the one at Mars.” Mark Croom, the project engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center also added, “We’ve done lots of dynamically scaled drop models over the years at NASA.” He said, “What the GuideStar did is pretty remarkable. We’re pleased and impressed.”

The GuideStar is a complete miniature flight control system that includes GPS receiver, strap-down inertial measurement unit (rates gyros and accelerometers), air data system, 3-axis magnetometer, processor, memory, power supply, and servo drivers in one compact two-pound package. GuideStar uses a sophisticated 16-state Kalman filter and Athena’s patented “Feedback Utilization” algorithms to provide guidance and control over a wide range of operating conditions.

Athena Technologies Inc. is a leading provider of advanced controls systems. Headquartered in Northern Virginia, Athena is the developer of the GuideStar(TM) family of fully integrated control system products. Its family of products is based on the GuideStar flight control system which shares the same highly modular core hardware and real-time software architecture, with sufficient I/O to interface to a variety of displays, data links, and servo actuators. Athena’s target markets for GuideStar include general aviation aircraft, unmanned vehicles, targets, air dispensers, missiles and ground vehicles.