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Tuesday, 14 August, 2001, 03:36 GMT 04:36 UK
Solar craft sets altitude record
Helios has reached new heights - but could go higher
A giant solar-powered flying wing launched by the US space agency Nasa has set a new altitude record for non-rocket-powered aircraft.

It's a real milestone of flight

Alan Brown
Nasa spokesman
Five-and-a-half hours after its launch from Barking Sands on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, the Helios craft reached a high of 29,413 metres (96,500 feet), a new world record.

However, the 74 metre-wide-wing failed to reach Nasa's own target of 30,000 metres (100,000 feet), due to thinning air and slanting sunlight which limited its potential for power generation.

"It's a landmark achievement, and especially to do it with a solar aircraft that is non-polluting. It is a triumph of technology in this area," said Nasa spokesman Alan Brown.

Helios, an unmanned craft powered by 62,000 solar cells, reached an altitude of 22,800 metres (75,000 feet) in its first test flight earlier this year.

The previous altitude record stood at 24,000 metres (79,000 feet).

Eye in the sky

Helios weighs about 700 kg (1,557 pounds), less than many cars. The wing is flexible, so that it can bend to cope with air turbulence. The entire craft is packed with solar cells, which power 14 engines.

Nasa developed the Helios with AeroVironment Inc., of Monrovia, California in a bid to build a remotely piloted aircraft that could replace space satellites for some uses.

A pilot-less plane that stays aloft for days using rechargeable fuel cells at night could be used for weather forecasting and as a communications platform that would be much cheaper than satellites.

The BBC's Andrew Craig
"Helios is an extraordinary looking aircraft"
See also:

15 Jul 01 | Sci/Tech
Solar craft aims for altitude record
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