THIS STORY showed up in my Philly Inquirer this am and is on the CNN site as well: NASA has flown a 247-foot wide unmanned flying wing to 85,100 feet, a world's record for a non-rocket aircraft. The wing is powered by solar cells that line the top of the wing. Infinite fuel. The thing's so high that I would think it's above all imaginable weather. It might be able to stay up there forever, or until it experiences mechanical failure of its parts. NASA is hoping to get it to 100,000 feet, to the very edge of space.
There are many interesting possibilities for this technology. The story mentions that robot planes like this might serve as sub-space satellites, doing radio/TV relaying, and other stuff that satellites usually do. It would prevent us from filling up Earth orbits with more and more space junk, that will eventually come crashing down on our heads, too. If one engine failed, the thing could just be landed for repairs.
Apparently the thin atmosphere at 100,000 feet approximates that of Mars. It's been suggested that these things might be used to explore Mars, flying all around the planet, within its atmosphere. Or how about Jupiter? Very thick atmosphere. Some people think Jupiter may have its own life forms, that live forever in the upper atmosphere, constantly in flight, never landing on the surface, with its immensely high pressures. Could we use planes like this to explore Jupiter's atmosphere? Not much sunlight for power out there... but with a nice thick atmosphere, you need less lift from the engines, so maybe it balances out.
I like this thing. This is genuinely cool. Nothing especially startling about the technology, but put together in a new way to do new stuff that I—and probably you—had never even thought of doing.