Monday, May 16, 2011

Video: Solar Airplane’s Maiden European Flight

Video: Solar Airplane’s Maiden European Flight: "

It took almost 13 hours, but an airplane powered only by the sun has completed the first international flight ever made by solar power, opening a new chapter in electric aviation.

André Borschberg, the CEO and co-founder of Solar Impulse, left Payerne aerodrome in western Switzerland at 8:40 a.m. local time. He touched down in Brussels 12 hours and 59 minutes later.

“It’s unbelievably exciting to land here in Brussels, at the heart of Europe, after flying across France and Luxemburg,” Borschberg said in a statement. “And to fly without fuel, noise or pollution, making practically no negative impact, is a great source of satisfaction.”

And inspiration. The flight highlights the possibilities of electric flight. Although the team still has a long way to go, Friday’s flight puts it on track to make an around-the-world flight in a larger plane sometime in 2013.

After leaving Payerne, Borschberg crossed the Alsace toward Nancy and Metz before flying over the Grand-Duchy of Luxemburg and into Belgium. He landed on Runway 02 at Brussels Airport at 11:39 p.m. local time. He flew at an average altitude of 6,000 feet and an average speed of 27 knots (31 mph).

No one, least of all Borschberg, expects solar aircraft, or even electric aircraft, to supplant airliners. The point of the project is to open people’s eyes, and minds, to new possibilities.

“The objective is to demonstrate what we can do with existing technology in terms of renewable energy and energy savings,” he told Reuters by telephone during the flight.

Solar Impulse also is one hell of an engineering exercise, one that will no doubt advance the nascent field of electric aviation.

The carbon-fiber airplane, dubbed HB-SIA, has a wingspan of 208 feet, roughly that of an Airbus A340. It draws energy from 11,628 silicon solar cells. They provide power to four 10-horsepower motors. Excess energy is stored in four lithium polymer batteries, one per engine pod, keeping the plane aloft after dark. Each prop is 11.5 feet in diameter; a gearbox limits their speed to 400 rpm.

Batteries are heavy and account for about 25 percent of the plane’s weight. To minimize mass, the airframe is made of carbon composite honeycomb. The wing features 125 carbon fiber ribs covered by a thin film. The plane can fly at an average of 44 mph and a maximum altitude of 27,900 feet.

The project took off in 2003 with a 10-year budget of $128 million. Solar Impulse made its maiden flight in April, 2010 and completed a record-setting 26-hour flight three months later.

The team plans to build a larger aircraft that will attempt a transatlantic crossing next year before trying to circumnavigate the globe in 2013.

Photo and videos: Solar Impulse

Highlights from the preparations and flight.

The takeoff from Payerne aerodrome in Switzerland.

Landing in Brussels 12 hours and 59 minutes later.


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