Solar Plane Soars through the Night

UPDATE: The flight was postponed due to a transmitter failure.  The flight has been rescheduled for Wed, 07 July 10.  Weather permitting, this flight will conclude on the morning of 08 July.

This morning (8a, Thursday) will mark a milestone for the world’s largest, manned solar plane.  The Swiss-made Solar Impulse will be flown through the night using only power gathered from the sun.  This would be the first time a solar plane makes it through the night, and is a vital step toward the project’s ultimate aim of flying around the world using just solar power.   WRS’s Tony Ganzer will be covering the night flight and brings us this report.

Though solar planes and projects have been met with some skepticism, the industry is closely watching the crew of the Solar Impulse.  The team is hoping its solar-powered aircraft will become the first such manned plane to make it through the night with just stored solar power..

“It is not a challenge to fly with a solar airplane for hundreds of kilometers,” said Rudolf Voit-Nitschmann, a professor of airplane design at the University of Stuttgart.

“And the challenge for Solar Impulse—the first major milestone—is to show the airplane can fly the whole day and even the whole night.  This was not shown up till now with a manned airplane,” he added.

Voit-Nitschmann has been watching Solar Impulse closely, and is no stranger to solar planes.  In 2003 he broke an unofficial distance record with his own solar plane flying for more than 200 miles.  But this night flight is uncharted territory for this technology.

“The most challenging item is to get around the night; that means: to start up a plane during the day—you have solar energy available, to recharge your batteries, and then you can fly through the night, because of course during the night you don’t have any solar energy,” Nitschmann said.

Just as the night flight is a milestone, the Solar Impulse project itself has taken solar plane technology to its most modern and extreme edge.  In Solar Impulse’s 7-year history, it has developed and tested many technologies, like the effects of high altitude and cold on the solar panels to be affixed to the plane’s wings.

The plane itself is ground-breaking—its wing-span is 61 meters, or about half the length of the largest football pitches.  Put simply, the plane is a giant glider with solar-powered electric turbines, and is testing what engineers can do with available technology.

The project is spearheaded by Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard, the first man to go non-stop around the world in a hot air balloon.

“When you do something that no one has done before of course you are nervous, of course you are anxious,” Piccard said last year at his plane’s unveiling.  “The test will not be directly a big flight.  It will be an epic—first one meter off the ground, then two meters, then 10 meters, then 100 meters, then 1000 meters, then we will spend the night in the air, then we will cross the US, the Atlantic, and then around the world.”

In other words, the project is taking baby steps, and this night flight is one giant hurdle to overcome.

Rudolph Voit-Nitschmann at the University of Stuttgart is convinced Solar Impulse will probably not change everyday flight, but could influence technologies to come.

“People seeing, okay, if you can fly with an airplane around the world with solar energy why you do not do other things with solar energy?” Nitschmann said.

And this flight at night, is one flight closer to Solar Impulse’s ultimate goal to circle the Earth.

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