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, CA (Phone: 805/258-3449) RELEASE: 97-56
March 27, 1997
STATE OF THE ART SOLAR-POWERED AIRCRAFT TO BE DEVELOPED Aeronautical engineers in Southern California are developing an aircraft -- called Centurion -- which they believe will push solar-powered aircraft concepts literally to new heights. Engineers for AeroVironment, Inc., Simi Valley, CA, are designing the aircraft to fly at 100,000 feet altitude. The company is developing this concept as a member of NASA's Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology (ERAST) program, which is sponsored by NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards, CA. Like its predecessor, the AeroVironment-developed Pathfinder, the Centurion will be an ultralight flying wing with multiple electric motors along its wingspan, powered by solar cells spread across the wing's upper surface. Centurion's wingspan, however, will be more than twice that of Pathfinder. According to John Del Frate, Dryden's ERAST deputy project manager, recent flight tests of a quarter-scale battery-powered model of the craft at El Mirage Dry Lake in Southern California's high desert have answered questions about the Centurion's aerodynamics and stability. "We saw it fly, and it flew quite well," said Del Frate. "It has given us confidence that we can go ahead with the design of the full-scale vehicle." "We'll take the data from these flights and incorporate them into the design of the full-scale proof-of-concept vehicle," added Bill Parks, Centurion's chief designer and operations manager for the subscale flight tests. "We're essentially scaling the aircraft up, designing new airfoils that are more efficient for high altitudes and optimizing the systems," said Rik Meininger, AeroVironment's Centurion project manager. Both cost and efficiency considerations have driven building and flying a subscale model, then a full-scale prototype before developing the final solar-powered Centurion. "We find that we can make configuration changes very quickly and very cost effectively, then immediately test it and come back and change if necessary," he said. "It allows us, in a very short period of time, to get a lot of test data, and also do the risky things that normally you wouldn't want to do with a full-scale
aircraft. By the time we get to the final aircraft stage, we should only be doing minor changes and fine-tuning for optimization," Meininger said. The final solar-powered Centurion will be designed to reach an ultra-high altitude of 100,000 feet for a relatively short duration -- about two hours -- while carrying a small 200-pound payload of scientific sensors. The full-scale Centurion will span between 210 and 240 feet. The subscale Centurion spans 62.5 feet but has only a twofoot chord. The straight wing is in five "spanwise" sections that are supported on the ground by four underwing pods. The model weighs in at a feathery 25 pounds, giving the kite-like craft a wing loading of only two-tenths of a pound per square foot and a design airspeed of about 11 knots (12.5 miles per hour). Centurion officials had a chance to assess the lightweight craft's stability during a planned flight in adverse conditions. Although turbulence tossed the model around like a cork, causing the wing to flex significantly, remote test pilot Wyatt Sadler was able to maintain safe altitude by adding differential power. After a short duration flight, he brought the craft to a safe landing. The model flew more than an hour and 40 minutes on 13 flights. The Centurion is one of several unpiloted aircraft being developed by an alliance between NASA and several small aeronautical development companies and universities under NASA's ERAST program. The goal of the ERAST program is to develop aeronautical technologies that will lead to development of a new family of high-flying remotely piloted aircraft for scientific missions. -endNOTE TO EDITORS: Photos are available on the Internet under NASA Dryden Research Aircraft Photo Archive, Dryden News and Feature Photos, at URL: http://www.dfrc.nasa.gov/PhotoServer