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'Zephyr' May Break Record for Longest Unmanned Flight

An unmanned solar-powered aircraft known as the "Zephyr" that soared for 54 hours more than 50,000 feet above New Mexico may hold the record for unmanned flight, defense research company QinetiQ announced Monday, breaking the previous record of 30 hours, 24 minutes in a flight on July 23. Unfortunately, QinetiQ's trapezoid-shaped, ultra-thin plane may not hold onto the record because the flight at the White Sands Missile Range in the New Mexico desert was not witnessed by officials from the World Air Sports Federation, which keeps and certifies records, the company said.

Built from carbon fibers, the aircraft is 59 feet long and weighs about 66 pounds - light enough to be launched, by hand, by a team of three. It uses paper-thin silicon panels to draw on the sun's power and stores the surplus in lithium-sulphur batteries, which power it through the night. QinetiQ said Britain's Ministry of Defense had contributed several million pounds to the project, but the company declined to say how much it cost. Possible future uses for the aircraft include surveillance and communications.

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