Published: Saturday 15 September 2001

The world's first solar-powered aircraft, Helios, has made a world altitude record. It reached 24.7 km, five hours and 16 minutes after its launch from the us navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility at Barking Sands, Kauai. Helios, the aircraft of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (nasa), surpassed the all-time record of 24.4 km set in 1998 by Pathfinder Plus, a small aircraft. However, the aircraft failed to reach nasa 's own target of 30 km due to thinning air and slanting sunlight, which limited its potential for power generation. "But still it's a landmark achievement, and especially for a solar aircraft that is non-polluting. It is a triumph of technology in this area," said nasa spokesperson Alan Brown. According to him, the record would be considered unofficial until the National Aeronautics Association, the official record-keeping agency, certifies it. nasa officials claim that Helios is capable of reaching an altitude of 31 km under ideal weather conditions, three times higher than any commercial jet-powered aircraft. The aircraft had completed its 18-hour test flight over the Pacific Ocean on July 15, 2001, reaching almost 22 km (see 'Solar wings', Down To Earth , Vol 10, No 6, August 15, 2001).

The ultralight aircraft has a single, translucent, curved wing packed with 180 square metres of solar panels, which are capable of generating 40 kilowatts of power. nasa developed Helios with the help of AeroVironment Incorporation of California. The remotely piloted aircraft can stay aloft for days using rechargeable fuel cells at night. Therefore, scientists opine that it can replace satellites for uses such as tracking climatic changes, hurricanes, ozone depletion, volcanic eruptions and the state of forests. It would prove to be much cheaper than satellites. John Hicks, a nasa official, claims that Helios can even help engineers plan designs of Mars-bound aircrafts.

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