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NASA's 'flying wing' breaks 2 altitude records

A prototype of the Helios flying wing taking off for its first test flight on solar power on Kauai, Hawaii, July 14, 2001.
A prototype of the Helios flying wing taking off for its first test flight on solar power on Kauai, Hawaii, July 14, 2001.  

KAUAI, Hawaii (CNN) -- NASA's Helios, a giant solar-powered flying wing that took off Monday in an attempt to break the altitude record for a propeller aircraft, achieved that and another significant goal Monday afternoon, the agency said.

At 8:21 p.m. EDT, the 247-foot unmanned aircraft reached an altitude of 85,100 feet, said a NASA spokesman. That breaks the record set in 1998 by a smaller version of the craft, at 80,200 feet -- and also breaks the altitude record for a jet-powered aircraft of 85,068 feet, set in 1976.

"At the moment, we're still climbing, going for 100,000," said a NASA spokesman, with that goal scheduled to be reached about 10 p.m. EDT Monday.

The Helios took off Monday at 2:40 p.m. EDT from Hawaii to carry out a potpourri of experiments. It is set to return to Earth around 8 a.m. EDT Tuesday.

Message Board: Space exploration  

In addition to attempting to prove a propeller-driven aircraft can fly at that altitude, NASA will be getting readings that will help scientists determine whether a plane can be flown in the atmosphere of Mars, which is similar to the atmospheric pressure at 100,000 feet above Earth.

NASA says the giant singular wing -- which flies at 20 mph, runs on solar power and is piloted by a controller with a joystick on the ground -- can also be a "poor man's satellite." It is the only craft that can operate for long periods on the border of space.

According to NASA scientists, the agency hopes to prove that private companies could fly a Helios indefinitely, providing the telecommunications services of a satellite at a fraction of the cost. The cost of the wing is around $1 million, compared with more than that just to launch a satellite.

The craft, NASA said, might one day play host to experiments for pharmaceutical companies and others that would fly it to the edge of space, conduct experiments and then fly it down -- all by remote control.

The flying wing operates on solar panels linked to a regenerative fuel cell that produces enough power during the day to remain in flight at night. It potentially could remain airborne until its parts wear out, NASA said.

• Helios Prototype

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