NASA's Solar-Powered Helios Flies above Hawaii

July 15, 2001 by Jeff Shepard

NASA's $15.0 million solar-powered aircraft, the Helios, has begun its first flight over Hawaii. Designed and developed by NASA and AeroVironment Inc. (Monrovia, CA), the unmanned aircraft is powered by 14 electric motors and looks like a flying, translucent boomerang. NASA plans for it to be the first step toward an aircraft that will soar at 100,000ft for months at a time, studying the depletion of the ozone layer and weather conditions. The military may also use the Helios for surveillance because it is silent and cannot be detected by radar.

The Helios is outfitted with individual solar cells that cover 2,000sqft of surface. These solar cells generate about 40kW of power to drive the craft's 14 propellers. The Helios requires 10kW to operate. Plans are in progress to install fuel cells on the plane by the summer of 2003, giving the Helios the ability to store excess solar power.

NASA Project Manager John Del Frate commented, "If we can develop an aircraft that can fly for six months at a time, it opens the door to a whole host of applications. It turns out that, at 100,000ft, the aerodynamic principles and conditions are very much the same as they would be on Mars. We can infer from the results of our flight test what's neccesary in the design of an aircraft that might someday fly on Mars."