NASA’s solar-powered, propeller-driven Helios aircraft
set a new world record altitude of 96,500 feet on Monday,
surpassing the old record for aircraft without rocket power
by more than 10,000 feet. 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.

NASA Adminstrator Daniel S. Goldin, 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, built by AeroVironment, Inc.,
Monrovia, CA, took off from the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile
Range Facility on the Hawaiian island of Kauai at 8:48 a.m.
local time. Flying at about 25 miles an hour, the aircraft
stayed aloft almost 17 hours, passing the old altitude
records of 80,200 feet for propeller-driven aircraft and
85,068 feet for any aircraft not powered by rockets. Helios
reached its highest altitude at 4:08 p.m. local time and
landed at 1:43 a.m. Tuesday local time.

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 aircraft reached record altitude 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.

Production variants of Helios might see service as long-term
Earth environmental monitors or 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.