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A PILOTLESS aircraft, that should be able
to stay in the air for weeks, circling
the globe to monitor the state of
the earth's atmosphere and to keep an
eye on pollution levels is being
developed by the National Aeronautics
and Space Administration (NASA).
Pathfinder, as it is galled, is controlled
from the ground and flies at an altitude
of 15392.4 m for solar-powered vehicles
and hopes to achieve 30480 m within
the next few months.
Scientists are assessing the vehicle as
part of a programme to have lightweight
aircraft circle the globe at 22860 m, or
higher, by AD 2001.
The Pathfinder's wings have a
span of 28.6416 m and are lined
with solar panels and a battery that
is capable of providing two hours
of power to ensure the aircraft can
remain in the air, or be brought back
to base in an emergency, or if there
is insufficient solar energy. Once the
technology behind Pathfinder is
proven, it can be used for many
Commercial applications will come to
light, including telecommunications,
mapping the earth's surface and
The flight is planned for this
summer because the craft is best
powered when the sun is directly above
its wings. Ground crew will use radio
controls to guide the craft. The
wings are monitored by a video camera
that can check if the propellers are
turning or if ice is forming on the wings.
NASA scientists are keen to develop a
fleet of unmanned craft that can take
air samples at high altitudes so that
environmental researchers can monitor
pollution and ozone levels without
the need for costly satellites. Pathfinder
would be perfectly suited for this. Its
227 kg chassis, made mainly from
carbon-fibre and kevlar, and vast
wingspan give it a weight-to -wingspan
ratio of less than I lb (I lb = 0.454 kg)
per square foot, several hundred times
better than conventional aircraft.
This could potentially enable it to stay in
the air for weeks, although so far the
aircraft has been in the air for only
New tests will ascertain whether the
craft's electric systems and fuselage can
withstand the high winds that it must fly
through at 9144 metres before enduring
freezing temperatures and a severe rise
in ultraviolet radiation.