About 200 onlookers cheered Saturday when the Helios, NASA's $15-million solar-powered aircraft that is expected to shatter altitude records, began its first flight over Hawaii.
Powered by 62,000 solar cells, the unmanned, remote-controlled craft lifted off at 8:05 a.m. Hawaiian time at the Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai.
The Helios traveled several hundred miles Saturday, spending most of its time over the Pacific Ocean to reduce the possibility of a crash in a populated area.
The experimental aircraft, which resembles a translucent boomerang, performed maneuvers at 10,000-foot intervals during its 14- to 16-hour flight, project manager John Hicks said.
It was expected to reach an altitude of 70,000 feet, although it is believed capable of soaring to 100,000 feet, about 20,000 feet higher than the current altitude record for a propeller-drive airplane.
AeroVironment Inc., which has contracted with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to develop the craft, had planned to fly the Helios on July 5, but gusty winds and a computer glitch pushed back the date.
When fuel cells are installed by summer of 2003, giving the craft the ability to store excess solar power, the Helios will be able to stay aloft for months at a time, Hicks said.