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Solar Airplane Braves The Night Sky, And Wins

Last week, in a history book moment, an airplane was flown straight through a day-night cycle running on nothing – nothing – but the sun’s rays. Imagine the quiet, up there, as Solar Impulse CEO and co-founder Andres Borschberg soared through the skies in his one-man cockpit, collecting and storing solar energy all day, then crossed over into darkness, and finally watched a new day break on the other side. Borschberg brought his plane, the HB-SIA, down to land in the mid-morning light of July 8th.

Imagine, also, the possibilities. If a solar-powered plane can fly all day and all night, then it could theoretically fly continuously – without, as Solar Impulse’s founders like to say – “a drop of fuel.” The HB-SIA made its recent trip with little cargo: just Borschberg himself. The technology probably isn’t going to hit commercial runways in the very near future. But as solar technology improves – as scientists develop ways to absorb more of the sun’s energy into smaller and smaller solar swaths, patches, and panels – solar airplanes will be able to carry heavier and heavier loads. For example: you and me.

Having watched Solar Impulse’s prototype grow from an awkward fledgling confined to its hangar to this - and in just a year - I feel strangely confident about the future of solar aviation. Don’t laugh, but I expect to find myself boarding a solar-powered plane within the next couple decades.

“People have to understand these technologies are available right now,” Piccard told Wired Magazine. “What we want to do now is to prove all of these technologies are the key to creating jobs and building the economy.”

Night Flight Specs: Solar Impulse CEO and co-founder Andres Borschberg got the HB-SIA up to a high of 68 knots (ground speed), and cruised at an average speed of 23 knots. He and his feather-light bird-plane rose to a peak altitude of 8564 meters above sea level, and landed safely after 26 hours and 9 minutes of continuous, ultra-green flight. Not bad for a seven year-old project.

Upon landing, he cried (cut him some slack – the guy must have been more than a little bit jangled with sleep-deprivation after his 26 hours in the cockpit) and gushed:

"I've been a pilot for 40 years now, but this flight has been the most incredible one of my flying career. Just sitting there and watching the battery charge level rise and rise thanks to the sun… And then that suspense, not knowing whether we were going to manage to stay up in the air the whole night. And finally the joy of seeing the sun rise and feeling the energy beginning to circulate in the solar panels again! I have just flown more than 26 hours without using a drop of fuel and without causing any pollution!”

 

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