SolarEagle To Soar For Five Years

When it comes to the SolarEagle, what goes up doesn’t have to come down. At least, not for very long time.

With an $89 million contract from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Boeing’s Phantom Works group is promising to have an unmanned, solar-powered aircraft soaring more than 11 miles above Earth by 2014, the company announced in a press release. The goal for the initial demonstration flight is 30 days aloft, but the long-term plan for the craft, part of a program called Venture II, is five years in the skies. Yes, five years.

image via Boeing

“That’s a daunting task, but Boeing has a highly reliable solar-electric design that will meet the challenge in order to perform persistent communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions from altitudes above 60,000 feet,” said Pat O’Neil, Boeing Phantom Works program manager for Vulture II.

As Boeing outlined it, the SolarEagle will gather in solar energy during the day, to be stored in fuel cells for use at night. The aircraft will have “highly efficient electric motors and propellers and a high-aspect-ratio, 400-foot wing for increased solar power and aerodynamic performance,” the company said.

As for why the government is pursuing this project, Defense Industry Daily speculates it’s all about communications:  “The system could act as a substitute for communications relay or reconnaissance satellites…. Vulture would be more vulnerable to anti-aircraft missiles than a satellite, and could be targeted by fighter jets as well, given the right launch profile. On the other hand, that same relative closeness to the would improve sensor resolution and communications capability.”

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Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.