NASA spokesman Alan Brown said the Helios Prototype reached a height of about 96,500 feet when officials made the decision to bring the flying wing down.
The remotely controlled Helios Prototype reached 81,100 feet five hours and 16 minutes after its 8:48 a.m. (local time) launch from the Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility at Barking Sands, Kauai.
That surpassed the altitude record for propeller-driven aircraft of 80,200 feet, set by a smaller version of the craft, Pathfinder Plus, in 1998.
Seventeen minutes later, the Helios had reached 85,100 feet, surpassing the all-time record for a non-rocket craft of 85,068, set by a Lockheed SR-71 jet-powered aircraft in 1976.
"It's a real milestone of flight," said NASA spokesman Alan Brown. "It's a landmark achievement, and especially to do it with a solar aircraft that is non-polluting. It is a triumph of technology in this area."
Brown said the record will be considered unofficial until it is certified by the National Aeronautics Association, the official record-keeping agency.
The Helios Prototype, driven by 14 propellers turned by small 2-horsepower electric motors, was believed to be capable of reaching 103,000 feet under ideal weather conditions, three times higher than commercial jet-powered aircraft.
Because the craft gets its electricity from 65,000 solar cells covering the wing, the takeoff required full sunshine. Cloud cover over western Kauai had canceled two weekend takeoff attempts at the Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility.
Its 247-foot wingspan is greater than that of a Boeing 747, and it weighs just 1,557 pounds, less than many cars.
Since the atmosphere at 100,000 feet is similar to the thin Martian atmosphere, Helios will help engineers plan Mars aircraft designs, said Kevin Petersen, director of NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
Petersen said a solar-powered aircraft flying on Mars could survey a lot more area than a vehicle on the ground.
Because it doesn't need to land for refueling, Helios also is envisioned as a low-cost alternative to broadcast-relay or weather satellites in Earth orbit.
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