Posted by : "Mark A. LeCuyer" <randydan@...
Aug 05 1999
High-altitude Aircraft Offer Satellite Alternative
by Greg Clark
In restricted airspace more than 55,000 feet above air force bases and
remote airstrips in the California desert, NASA this summer will be
testing four remotely-piloted experimental aircraft. The planes are
part of NASA's Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology
(ERAST) Program, which is developing alternatives to satellites and
traditional aircraft as platforms for carrying scientific instruments
to high altitudes.
The experimental aircraft are being called "atmospheric satellites,"
because they will be able to perform many of the functions of orbiting
satellites, only at lower altitudes. Project engineers aspire to build
a plane that will essentially be able to park 55,000 to 60,000 feet
above a particular location on Earth and remain there for at least six
"That would provide you with a tower 55,000 to 60,000 feet above a
city to provide something like telecommunications," said John
DelFrate, a project manager for the program's solar-powered aircraft.
While NASA itself is not interested in providing telecommunications
services, DelFrate said, the agency seeks to share its technology with
private industry, so that commercial ventures can help defray the cost
of scientific research performed with these high-altitude aircraft.
The ERAST program is based at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in
Edwards, Calif. It will test prototypes of four aircraft designs
during the next two months, aiming to reach several goals.
The most ambitious design of the four experimental aircraft is the
solar-powered Helios Prototype, an enormous flying wing that spans 248
feet (74 meters), but weighs just 1,600 pounds (720 kilograms). Wider
than a Boeing 747, the top of the Helios Prototype is clad with solar
panels, which, its designers hope, will power the plane to rise above
100,000 feet. The target year for reaching that milestone is 2001. Two
years later, project engineers hope to fly the Helios to 60,000 feet
and keep it there for four days, using batteries to provide flying
power through the nights.
Most commercial airliners fly below 40,000 feet.
Already the Helios prototype has demonstrated that it can cope with
the high altitudes and low temperatures of flight at extreme altitude,
DelFrate said, adding that a predecessor plane has flown to more than
Project developers at NASA cite several scientific uses for such
airplanes. They can carry instruments to provide scientists with
long-term data about the atmosphere. Current observations taken from
traditional aircraft are limited both by altitude and the relatively
short duration of flights. With efficient high-flying planes,
scientists could measure atmospheric changes not just over hours, but
over months and seasons.
Such aircraft could be used for remote sensing to provide data about
agriculture, weather, or natural disasters. For example, instruments
could be flown above forest fires to help firefighters battle
troublesome blazes. New planes could fly at safe altitudes above
hurricanes to help forecasters determine storm severity and predict
The chief advantages of an atmospheric satellite compared to its
space-based counterpart would be its low cost and versatility,
Instead of the massive rocket required to launch a payload into space,
a high-altitude airplane simply needs a runway. Plus, DelFrate adds,
"If you have a problem with your payload package, you can bring it
back down and fix it. You can't do that with the space-based systems
quite so easily."
Eventually, engineers foresee an airplane that can stay up
indefinitely. AeroEnvironment, the private company that is working
with NASA to develop the Helios Prototype, is calling its craft the
"You don't want the airplanes on the ground," DelFrate said. "You want
them in the air. You lose money when the airplane is sitting on the
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