Like a gigantic, solar-powered Pterodactyl, the Solar Impulse aircraft hopes to revolutionise air travel by circumnavigating the globe without landing. But first, it has to get from Switzerland to Morocco in 48 hours without refueling.
The Solar Impulse HB-SIA is a purpose-built plane designed to expend the bare minimum energy required to stay airborne. Its Airbus A340-sized 63-meter-wide wings are crafted from carbon fibre and coated in 10,748 solar panels (another 880 cover the horizontal stabilizer). Every square meter of these cells can generate a maximum of 1000 watts of power, though they only average a quarter of that over a 24-hour period. The plane is also outfitted with a accumulator (battery) system that stores an electrical charge for nighttime flights.
This is enough electricity to power the four, 8HP props spinning at 400RPM — coincidentally, 8HP is how much power the Wright Brothers were working with at Kitty Hawk. With this amount of power, the plane can fly at the very slow pace of just 75KPH in the air. The engines are battery-powered and heavily insulated to prevent them from freezing at the extreme altitudes the plane encounters — an operational ceiling of 8500 meters (27,900 feet). The Impulse doesn't need a lot of power to get off the ground, however, because the entire aircraft only weighs about 2,200kg — slightly more than a BMW 7-series.
Swiss adventuring duo Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg own and operate the Solar Impulse. They were the first to fly a solar-powered aircraft for 24 hours, and they set the record for the longest flight by a manned solar-powered aeroplane with the mark of 26:10:19 hours.
The team is working up to a global circumnavigation attempt in 2014. Before that, though, the team will attempt to fly it from Switzerland to Morocco in a 48-hour span with a short stopover in Madrid to allow the pilots to switch seats and flying duties. Preparations are currently underway for the test flight, which should happen in May or June. [Solar Impulse Wiki, Solar Impulse via UberGizmo - Images: The AP]