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Solar-Powered Plane to Soar Over US

  • Suzanne Presto

Solar Impulse flying over Paris in 2011. (© Solar Impulse | Jean Revillard )

Solar Impulse flying over Paris in 2011. (© Solar Impulse | Jean Revillard )

Solar Impulse - a solar-powered Swiss plane - will take to the skies over the United States later this year, flying from the west coast to the east coast, without a drop of fuel.

The mission's two pilots, who are also the co-founders of Solar Impulse, told reporters at Moffett Air Field in California that the plan is to fly to New York in five legs, landing in major airports in each of the destinations along the way. The solar-powered trip will last from May until July, with stops of a week or so in each location.

Pilot Bertrand Piccard says one of the goals is to demonstrate the power of innovation.

"Showing that with solar power, with clean technologies, with energy efficiency, with ultra-light materials, we can bring a lot of solutions to the problems of sustainability," said Piccard.

He added that the aim is to protect the environment, "but also to create jobs, to make profit for corporations, to sustain growth, thanks to this technological innovation."

TECHNOLOGICAL INNOVATION

The plane certainly is innovative, resembling a glider or an insect more than a traditional plane. Its slim cockpit can seat just one person, and the craft has the wingspan of a jumbo jet, measuring more than 60 meters.

The top side of the plane's wings is covered in solar panels that convert the sun's rays into electricity. That energy powers the craft and recharges the batteries so the plane can fly at night. The solar cells are about as thick as a human hair.

It's an engineering feat to create an aircraft that is light enough to fly day and night on solar power. In fact, the carbon-fiber craft weighs only as much as a small car, about 1,600 kilograms, including the pilot.

PILOTS

Pilot André Borschberg flew Solar Impulse on its first solar-powered night flight in 2010. That trip lasted 26 hours, but Borschberg says for this coming mission, he and fellow pilot Piccard have limited themselves to no more than 24 hours in the air at a time.

"Now, this airplane could do it non-stop, but this airplane has no autopilot, and for safety reasons, for security - as the pilot is not as sustainable as the technology, at least yet -- we have limited ourselves to 24-hour duration," Borschberg said, prompting a laugh from the audience.

The two men will take turns flying and alternate for each leg.

RECORD-SETTING MISSIONS

Pilot Piccard also is no stranger to breaking records, and he made the first non-stop balloon flight around the world. Piccard says he is driven to do what people say cannot be done, adding that people spend much of their lives avoiding the unknown.

"As soon as you start to love the unknown, to love the doubts, to love the question marks, life becomes an absolutely fabulous adventure, and this is what Solar Impulse is about," said Piccard.

This coming U.S. adventure is a precursor to Solar Impulse's planned solar-powered flight around the world in 2015.
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