June 30, 2010

Groundbreaking Solar-powered Night Flight Planned

The high-tech prototype of a groundbreaking Swiss initiative to fly around the world using solar energy will take to the skies this Thursday in the first attempt at a solar-powered night flight, the AFP news agency reported.

The single-seater Solar Impulse aircraft, which boasts the 208-foot wingspan of a large Airbus A340 jet but weighs only 3,500 pounds, will take off from Payerne airbase in western Switzerland.

"The situation continues to look good and the likelihood of seeing the HB-SIA take off on July 1st and land back in the early morning July 2nd is increasingly probable," the team said in a statement issued Tuesday.

Team members have said they require a 25-hour window of clear and calm summer weather before attempting the pioneering, non-stop flight above Switzerland and eastern France.

Pilot Andre Borschberg plans to fly the plane at altitudes of up to 25,000 feet, storing some of the energy from solar panels in batteries during the daylight to power the flight throughout the night before landing Friday morning.

"We're not sure to make it at the first try, let's be clear about this," said Solar Impulse president and founder Bertrand Piccard.

In addition to Piccard, a round-the-world balloonist, the team has grown in recent months to include former space shuttle astronaut Claude Nicollier and retired NASA chief test pilot Rogers Smith. 

The prototype first took off from a runway shortly after it was unveiled seven months ago, and on Tuesday completed its 10th test flight under solar energy.

Solar Impulse's take-off speed is just 22mph, with a cruising speed around twice that speed.  The aircraft is powered by four 10-horsepower electric motors, each of which is as strong as the engine that powered the Wright Brothers into the air more than a century ago.

The prototype is slightly smaller than the aircraft the team plans to use to circle the globe in 2013 to 2014.


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