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Space

'Atmospheric satellites' could cut the cost of communications

solar plane August 11, 1998
Web posted at: 9:25 p.m. EDT (0125 GMT)

From Correspondent Don Knapp

SAN FRANCISCO (CNN) -- With only the sun for fuel, eight tiny electric motors lift a huge, remotely controlled airplane off a runway in Hawaii and pull it to more than 80,000 feet.

It's on a mission to prove an idea -- that planes like this could fly for months on end in the stratosphere. The purpose? Alternatives to communications satellites.

"What we're trying to do is create what we call an 'atmospheric satellite,' which operates and performs many of the functions as a satellite would do in space, but does it very close in, in the atmosphere," explained Ray Morgan, president of AeroVironment Inc., which designed and built the Pathfinder Plus.

NASA is funding the research, and a former Cold War spy plane was a prototype. That plane, said Richard Swanson, "was a very light structure, but they still needed a lot of power to keep this thing up at high altitude, so the other piece of the puzzle is a very light weight and very high performance solar cell."

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Swanson's SunPower Inc. created the cell, super-efficient and paper-thin. Thousands of solar cells on the wings of the plane generate 10,000 watts of power.

"The solar cell converts sunlight into electricity," said Swanson, "or as AeroVironment likes to say, the plane is powered by it's shadow."

Pathfinder Plus, with its 121-foot single wing, broke its own altitude record of 71,500 feet for a propeller-driven aircraft with last week's flight.

Profitable venture

Other companies are jumping on the bandwagon.

Angel Technologies has designed another long-term flyer, powered by conventional fan jets. Rather than stay in the stratosphere for months at a time, two of the planes would fly in shifts, sending and receiving phone calls over a city.

"The pilots on board would be responsible for taking the plane off, going up to the location where they would be flying around in circles," said Angel's Marc Arnold. "Before they leave station, a second plane comes up and assumes responsibility for wireless communications, then there's a hand off."

Angel says a fleet of a thousand planes could provide telecommunications for 300 cities around the world.

And another company, Sky Station, advocates using several fleets of helium balloons -- say 250 over every major city -- to send cell signals from the stratosphere.

These new telecommunications ideas may seem far-fetched, but there is quite an incentive. Planes and balloons would cost only a fraction of the $50 million-a-launch cost of space-bound satellites.

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