Solar Plane Completes Record Night Flight

A Swiss team has completed the world’s first overnight flight in a solar plane. Reuters has more about this jaw-dropping inspiring feat:

Solar Impulse, whose wingspan is the same as an Airbus A340, flew 26 hours and 9 minutes, powered only by solar energy stored during the day. It was also the longest and highest flight in the history of solar aviation, organizers said.

Bertrand Piccard, the Swiss president of the project, best known for completing the first round-the-world flight in a hot air balloon in 1999, said the success of the flight showed the potential of renewable energies and clean technology.

The Solar Impulse HB-SIA, which has 12,000 solar cells built into its 64.3-meter (193-foot) wings, is a prototype for an aircraft that its creators hope will carry out its first circumnavigation of the globe from 2012. Weighing just 1,600 kg (3,500 lb), as much as a medium-sized car, the plane powered by four electric motors is designed to save energy from its solar cells in high-performance batteries.

Sponsors of the project, whose budget is 100 million Swiss francs ($95 million), include Belgian chemicals company Solvay SA, Swiss watchmaker Omega, part of the Swatch group, and German banking giant Deutsche Bank. France’s Altran is the project’s engineering partner.

Businessweek puts the flight into context:

The flight was part of the project’s 100 million Swiss franc ($95 million) effort sponsored by Deutsche Bank AG, Germany’s biggest bank, to eventually pilot the first flight around the globe in an airplane using only solar energy.

“Before yesterday morning, we didn’t have credibility,” Piccard, known for his record-setting 1999 balloon flight around the world, said on the group’s website. “It’s time to use this success to demonstrate in the political and economic world how we can use this clean technology.”

Is the technology marketable? Not yet, according to the AP:

The team says it has now demonstrated that the single-seat plane can theoretically stay in the air indefinitely, recharging its depleted batteries using 12,000 solar cells and nothing but the rays of the sun during the day.

But while the team says this proves that emissions-free air travel is possible, it doesn’t see solar technology replacing conventional jet propulsion any time soon. Instead, the project’s overarching purpose is to test and promote new energy-efficient technologies.

Piccard said he was confident the success of the night flight would help to secure the 20 million Swiss francs ($19 million) still missing for the privately funded project with a total budget of 100 million francs ($95 million).

Solar Impulse is building new prototypes to cross the Atlantic, then circumnavigate the globe. The solar plane, which reached a maximum ground speed of 68 knots, is probably too slow to become marketable in the foreseeable future. But what the Solar Impulse accomplished is incredible. With years of improvement in speed and carrying capacity, we may actually see commercial solar flight. Amazing.

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