An unmanned, solar-powered NASA plane crashed today during a test flight off Kaua`i, dealing a blow to the space agency’s long-term hopes of finding an affordable alternative to space satellites. According to NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, the $15 million Helios prototype crashed during a test of its fuel cell system. The Helios had made history here two years ago, when it reached an altitude of about 18 miles — a record for a non-rocketpowered aircraft.
The Helios crashed into the ocean at about 10:30 this morning, approximately 30 minutes into its flight. No injuries or property damage were reported where the plane went down, within the testing area of the Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility at Barking Sands.
A joint investigation involving NASA, the U.S. Navy and the plane’s developers is now being launched.
The remotely piloted, one-of-a-kind Helios had a wingspan of 247 feet — longer than that of a Boeing 747. Looking more like a flying wing than a conventional plane, the Helios was one of a number of experimental aircraft being developed with NASA funds. Aircraft that can maintain an altitude of 100,000 feet for days or even weeks at a time could provide a unique laboratory for experiments as well as be a viable, cost-effective alternative to launching low-orbit satellites into space.
The Helios was built by AeroVironment, Inc., a Monrovia, Calif.-based company. As designed, it would operate on solar power during the day, or on an experimental fuel cell-based electrical system at night. The company said it would be able to stay at 100,000 feet for day-long atmospheric science and imaging missions, or at 50,000 to 65,000 feet for several days — allowing it to serve as a telecommunications relay.
Last year, the company used the Helios to demonstrate its “SkyTower” concept, in which high-altitude, unmanned aircraft could replace expensive satellites or ground towers as ways to broadcast HDTV and 3G cellular signals. Another communications test was to have taken place in September.
Today’s crash occurred during a shakedown mission in preparation for a long-endurance mission of almost two days that had been planned for next month. A multi-day flight would have pushed AeroVironment past a key NASA development milestone, as well as set another flight record.