High-flying wing destroyed in crash

The unmanned NASA aircraft that holds the world record for high-altitude flight without rocket propulsion recently broke up over the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. The solar-powered flyer, known as Helios, was of a remarkable design intended to achieve slow, long-duration flights at extreme heights. A single, 75-meter-long wing, the craft was equipped with landing gear and electrically driven propellers.

SUNNIER DAYS. The experimental Helios aircraft soars aloft in a 2001 test flight. NASA

During a low-altitude flight on June 26, Helios began to pitch back and forth, and then it fell apart, NASA reports. The remote control aircraft apparently had accelerated to a faster speed than it was intended to handle, says Robert F. Curtin of AeroVironment of Monrovia, Calif., the company that designed and built Helios.

For years, NASA has been developing Helios and a sister aircraft known as Pathfinder (SN: 8/2/97, p. 75) as substitutes for satellites that relay telecommunications signals and survey Earth. A subsidiary of AeroVironment plans to commercialize such aircraft as conduits for Internet traffic, high-definition-television broadcasts, and cell phone signals.

Sticking to those goals, both NASA and AeroVironment say they intend to learn from the mishap and push forward. A new Helios-like vehicle will cost about $15 million, Curtin says.


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