Electric dreams. Image: EPA/ZUMAPress.
Looking to eventually tackle a groundbreaking round-the-world flight with their creation, a team of Swiss engineers have this week completed the first substantial test flight of the prototype Solar Impulse (HS-SIA) plane, which, as the name suggests, is powered entirely by the sun.
Airborne for almost 90 minutes, test pilot Markus Scherdel guided the graceful single-seat craft to a height of 5,500 feet above the Payerne military airport in Switzerland on Wednesday, while reaching a modest top speed of 28 miles per hour (approximately 45 kph).
“The first flight was for me a very intense moment,” enthused Scherdel after returning the plane safely to the Swiss tarmac. “The HB-SIA behaved just as the flight simulator told us. Despite its immense size and feather weight, the aircraft's controllability matches our expectations.”
Weighing less than a small car and without the support of conventional engines, the Solar Impulse instead relies on four 10HP propeller-equipped electric gondolas that are powered by solar energy harnessed from 12,000 photovoltaic panels covering the plane's enormous wingspan – which rivals that of an Airbus A340 jetliner.
The 70-strong team, which is headed by Bertrand Piccard, initially got Solar Impulse off the ground back on December 03 of 2009, when the plane drifted just above the Payerne runway for a distance of around 400 metres.
“Our future depends on our ability to convert rapidly to the use of renewable energies,” said Piccard. “Solar Impulse is intended to demonstrate what can be done already today by using these energies and applying new technologies that can save natural resources.”
The next step in the $94 million USD plane's evolution is to test its energy storage capabilities by attempting to fly non-stop and at night for a period of 36 hours. And, if that goal is reached later in 2010, the team hopes to mount an official round-the-world bid by 2012.
The current longest single trip completed by a solar-powered aircraft was made some 30 years ago when the Solar Challenger made the trip from France to England.