A solar-powered plane completed a 26-hour test flight with no fuel used at all. The Solar Impulse, piloted by André Borscherg, was nearly silent, NPR reported, and its circling flight over the Jura Mountains in Switzerland was the longest and highest flight of its kind.
The Impulse stayed aloft during the nighttime hours thanks to daylight power. The plane can hold one person, the Epoch Times noted, and weighs roughly the same as a family car. Borschberg hopes to develop a more advanced solar power plane for a trans-Atlantic flight and may eventually even manage an around-the-world trip.
With a wingspan of 61 meters (207 ft) and light build, creating a commercially viable alternative to existing cross-country passenger planes will be quite a long way off. But, it seems possible that, within the next decade, personal aircraft could go through a fuel efficiency revolution, provided the weight obstacle can be overcome enough to allow passengers. The next redesign, scheduled for 2012, promises to “retrace great firsts in the history of flight,” Epoch Times reports the project to have suggested, but how long could a solar-powered plane actually fly?
According to the Christian Science Monitor, theoretically, the Solar Impulse could fly forever. With 12,000 solar cells arrayed on the wingspan, the Impulse was able to use far less energy than it collected — 20 percent more than anticipated. The lack of an autopilot, however, was a distinct drawback, as former Swiss fighter pilot Borschbert was forced to use water spritzes and yoga to avoid falling asleep.
The new design, with the initial intent of crossing the United States in 2013, will have to accommodate an autopilot in the ultralight weight design, currently made of carbon fiber and weighing in at 1,500 kg, as estimated by the BBC. Before landing at Payerne airport near Bern, the four-engine aircraft achieved a height of 8,700 m (28,543 ft.) and a speed of 70 km per hour.
The plane had made several tests in the past, but nothing on this scale.
This week’s milestone accomplishment is expected to bolster the confidence of the design team.
“Nothing can prevent us from another day and night, and the myth of perpetual flight.” said lead designer Bertrand Piccard, as quoted in the BBC. “It’s the first time ever that a [manned] solar airplane has flown through the night.
“That was the moment that proved the mission was successful, we made it.”
NPR, “Solar-Powered Plane Completes Test Flight”
Yi Yang, “Solar Plane Successfully Completes 26-Hour Test Flight” Epoch Times
Chris Gaylord, “Solar energy fuels experimental airplane all day, and all night” Christian Science Monitor
BBC, “Solar-powered plane lands safely after 26-hour flight”