Julie Kalista
Online Editor

Solar-powered airplane shown over a computer-generated radar image of the surface of Venus. (Artist's conception by Terence K. Condrich of InDyne, Inc.)
A team led by aerospace researcher Anthony Colozza, with Analex Corp., in Fairfax Va., and NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Oh., has been working on designs for a plane that will fly like a bird. This aircraft will literally flap its wings in a continuous fluid motion to keep altitude and move. It will carry no jet engines or propellers. The team has completed a feasibility study and worked out the initial design.

"The vehicle would be unmanned, solar-powered, and made of strong, light-weight materials," says Colozza. The plane's body would be made of plastic-like material called ionic polymer-metal composite that deforms when exposed to electric fields. The plane would also use thin sheets of photovoltaic material and a lithium battery.

The plane would fly like an albatross, gliding great distances and circling over the same area for long periods of time, flapping only to regain altitude. To maneuver, the aircraft will adjust its wings into complex shapes, rather than using ailerons or a rudder.

Colozza believes this plane could be flying in just a decade or two, with countless uses such as gathering scientific data, relaying communications, and surveying terrain. He also believes the plane could be used on other planets with atmospheres that would ground air-breathing planes.

More Information:
NASA Glenn Research Center

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