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Centurion

In the California desert an unusual airplane called Centurion sauntered down the runway at just 24 miles an hour with it's 14 engines producing little more power than a household appliance.

"Think about a blowdryer you use to blowdry your hair" says NASA engineer John Del Frate. "That's about one kilowatt. So essentially to take off we need the power of six to eight blowdryers."

Thursday was the public debut and only the second flight ever for Centurion. The aircraft is a solar powered plane NASA hopes will one day fly high enough to takeover jobs now done by satellites.

There is no pilot, and the plane operates by remote control. In the hangar, Centurion seems delicate, little more than wire wrapped in plastic.

"It is fragile on the ground" says the aircraft's designer Ray Morgan, of Aerovironment Inc. "You could put your fist through any part of it, but in the air it is much more robust. It is designed to fly."

The design proved itself in August when a smaller version, called Pathfinder, climbed to more than 80,000 feet. Reaching higher altitudes requires a much bigger plane.

The Centurion stretches 206 feet, which is greater than the wingspan of a Boeing 747. Because it runs on solar power, Centurion could fly for weeks or months at a time watching weather for example more effectively than a satellite.

"We could take this airplane park it over a hurricane development in the Atlantic then follow it through the Gulf of Mexico" says Del Frate.

While it doesn't have the speed or power of a jetplane or a rocket, those who built it are convinced Centurion still has the right stuff.

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