Solar Impulse Prepares to Launch a 24 Hour Flight in a Plane Run on Renewable Energy

Using renewable energy from sunlight as a means of creating solar powered aircraft has been around since the late 1970s. However, what few manned aircraft that were successfully run on solar power had extraordinarily limited potential. The Gossamer Penguin, for example, was so small that the team behind the aircraft had to use a 100 pound pilot to ensure the Penguin could stay off the ground. Most projects in the solar aviation field that are capable of long term flights tend to be unmanned, like NASA’s Pathfinder and Pathfinder Plus which have flown to altitudes of 75,000-85,000 feet on separate occasions. For the first time, however, a team of Swiss aviation experts are preparing themselves to fly a solar powered aircraft around the globe.

The Solar Impulse project, which has been underway since 2003, hopes to revolutionize the use of renewable energy from solar power in aviation and other fields. By creating a solar cell that is capable of holding a long lasting charge and staying light enough to allow an aircraft to fly with ease, the Impulse group thinks they can find a variety of applications should the project eventually prove successful. The Solar Impulse aircraft achieved its first test flight as a prototype last year in Germany where the design showed promise as an easily controlled and maneuverable aircraft. Yesterday, the team had hoped to reach the next step in the project by flying for 24 straight hours before a technical malfunction forced them to delay the flight.

Designated the HB-SIA, the planned test flight for the craft would have launched in the early morning and flown throughout the day to allow the solar power cells onboard to continue collecting that renewable energy and maintain a full charge. Ideally, as the sun set the HB-SIA would have been able to fly throughout the night on the charge and been able to safetly land back at the Swiss airport they left from previously the next morning. The malfunction that kept the team grounded, however, was a key component that would have allowed the ground control to monitor the progress of the craft at all times for safety reasons. Without that device functioning, the team felt the safety of the flight could be compromised and were forced to delay. Though a date has not been set the team hopes to get underway before it becomes to late in the year and the days become in winter. Shorter days would obviously mean less sunlight, and the crew does not believe it would be sufficient to allow a full charge for night flight.

Once the flight is rescheduled and successful, the Solar Impulse team will be prepared to achieve their ultimate goal in flying a renewable energy powered plane. The team hopes, that by 2011 or 2012 they will be able to fly the final version of the HB-SIA on a month long trip around the globe entirely on solar power. The final craft will have a wingspan in excess of 220 feet and will include a pressurized cabin allowing the crew to maintain the higher altitudes needed for such a flight. Hopefully the Solar Impulse project will be able to get far enough to accomplish just that, allowing the rest of the world to see one of the most exciting circumnavigations of the globe in years on a plan entirely powered by renewable energy.

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