High-flight experts
impress Maui students

LAHAINA >> NASA official Jeffrey Bauer asks an eighth-grade class at Lahaina Intermediate School if they can run as easily at the summit of Haleakala as they could at sea level.

"No, because the air's thinner," a student answers.

"It's the same for the airplane," Bauer adds.

Bauer and other officials, many of whom helped to establish a new world record for the highest airplane flight, were delivering speeches at about a dozen Maui schools yesterday to discuss how education made it possible for them to pursue science careers.

They are also attending a conference in West Maui to discuss the progress made in developing unmanned aerial vehicles under the Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology project.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration project helped to develop the solar-powered Helios airplane that took off from Kauai and soared to an altitude of 96,863 feet, establishing a new world record on Aug. 13, 2001.

Passenger jets usually fly at about 41,000 feet in altitude.

NASA officials selected Kauai for the unmanned solar-powered airplane flight because of its proximity to direct sunlight near the equator and the absence of populated areas that might interfere with radio transmissions, Bauer said.

Flying at nearly 100,000 feet required scientists to develop an airplane that was flexible enough to withstand high winds and also strong enough to endure freezing cold and heat hot enough to melt a radio.

Bauer said the Helios was equipped with sensors to measure the atmosphere and that the use of solar power helped in keeping accurate readings.

"It's a very environmental, clean way of doing it," he said.

He said many of the scientists used algebra to determine how to meet the design challenges of Helios.

Bauer said unmanned solar-powered airplanes could be used for a number of commercial purposes, such as gathering information about the weather and transmitting signals for cell phones.

Pulling out an infrared map of West Maui taken from an unmanned airplane, Bauer showed the areas that are wet and dry by reading color variations.

A similar map was used by a sugar cane company on Kauai to determine whether it needed to irrigate certain fields. Bauer, who works at the Dryden Flight Research Center in California, said a variety of people in different jobs work in the program, including video technicians, engineers and aeronautical scientists, and that the way to get these jobs was through higher education.

Students said they enjoyed Bauer's talk, especially the description of Helios' flight.

"I think it's interesting," said Cristian Garcia, an eighth-grader. "This is the first time it's happened."

Bauer said this summer, NASA plans to launch the Helios with fuel cells able to convert solar power into stored hydrogen power to fly at night.

During the day, the Helios airplane will be powered directly by solar power and use some of the excess energy to extract and store hydrogen in a tank.

At night the hydrogen will be combined with oxygen from a compressor to create electricity to power the airplane.

While the project ends this September after nine years, another is being initiated to explore the use of fuel cell storage and figure out how unmanned aerial vehicles can be integrated into commercial airspace procedures.


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