Pathfinder in flight over Hawaii. (NASA photo by Nick Galante)
The Pathfinder solar-powered aircraft was designed and fabricated by AeroVironment in the early 1980's to support a classified program. After its initial flight series, it was determined that the technology required had not reached a level where ultra long duration flight (many days) under solar power could be achieved. At that point the aircraft was placed in storage.
In 1993, the aircraft was brought back to flight status by the Ballistic Missile Defence Organization and in 1994, transferred to NASA to develop science platform aircraft technology as part of the NASA's Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology (ERAST) Program.
A series of flights were planned to demonstrate that an extremely light and fragile aircraft structure with a very high aspect ratio (the ratio between the wingspan and the wing chord) can successfully take-off and land from an airport and can be flown to extremely high altitudes (between 50,000 and 80,000 feet) propelled by the power of the sun.
In addition, the ERAST Project also wanted to determine the feasibility of such a UAV for carrying instruments used in a variety of scientific studies.
Pathfinder-Plus solar-electric flying wing lifts off Rogers Dry Lake. (NASA photo by Tom Tschida) Project Milestones
|Early 1980's||First developed for a classified program.|
|1994||Adopted into ERAST program.|
|Sept. 11, 1995||Set first altitude record for solar-powered aircraft at 50,000 feet during a 12-hour flight.|
|Oct. 21, 1995||Severely damaged in a hangar mishap.|
|July 7, 1997||Shatters old record to set new altitude record for propeller-driven as well as solar-powered aircraft of 71,530 feet.|
|1998||Pathfinder modified into the longer-winged Pathfinder-Plus.|
|Aug. 6, 1998||Pathfinder-Plus breaks old record again to set a new record altitude of 80,201 feet.|