A team of 15 engineers are working in a remote New Mexico facility to take their knowledge about solar-powered vehicles to the next level – the upper atmosphere. Max Yaney, founder and chief technical officer at Titan Aerospace, established the company in 2012 with a unique vision to change the high altitude, long endurance market for aerial vehicles. His dream is to create a series of unmanned aircraft that function as satellites, but with a broader range of capabilities and at a lower cost.

Titan Aerospace is presently designing and constructing the Solara 50, a solar-powered “atmosat” – or atmospheric satellite – that could potentially perform research tasks and serve as a communications platform at the edge of space. The company hopes that the Solara 50, which resembles a large drone, will be commercially available in 2016 or 2017.

The Solara 50 is large: It’s 15 meters (49 feet) long and features a wingspan of 50 meters (164 feet). It’s also fast – capable of cruising at 65 mph. The atmosat is projected to cruise at an altitude of 65,000 feet and remain there for up to five years. It could carry 250 pounds of equipment, such as telecommunications platforms, reconnaissance equipment, sensors and other payloads.

“The Solara is extremely light and strong and has a simple design with commercial off-the-shelf components, which allows us to operate effectively in this market,” says Ron Olsen, vice president of sales and marketing at Titan Aerospace. The airframe relies heavily on composites – mainly fiberglass, Kevlar and carbon fiber. While the company could not elaborate on proprietary information concerning composite usage, Olsen added that materials were chosen to meet the atmosat’s strength and weight requirements.

Production of the Solara 50 is possible thanks to Titan Aerospace’s autoclave installation last March. “With an autoclave, we are able to make parts under pressure using prepreg materials that are lighter and stronger than their wet-layup counterparts,” says Olsen. “This allows us to the push the envelope and achieve strength-to-weight ratios necessary to build an atmosat.”

Titan’s engineers previously designed solar-powered cars, and they’ve applied the skills and knowledge from that experience to work on the Solara 50. One of the biggest challenges for the engineers has been getting the most efficiency out of the satellite’s 3,000 solar panels that cover the upper wing surface, elevator and horizontal stabilizer. “We have a patented process for embedding the solar panels instead of pasting them, which will increase the aerodynamic capabilities of the craft,” says Olsen.