Between hotdogs, fireworks, and lots of hijinks at the U.S. Supreme Court, you probably missed it but history was made last week, and in almost complete silence.
The Solar Impulse, a solar-powered airplane created by Swiss aviation pioneers Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, completed its Mission Across America–a cross-country flight that aimed to demonstrate just how versatile solar power can be.
The mission began in San Francisco on May 3rd and, despite inclement weather in the Midwest, it landed on July 6th at New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport no worse for wear.
Although it’s not the first solar airplane to take flight in America, according to the Solar Impulse team, it was “the first time that an airplane, capable of flying 24 hours non-stop day and night powered exclusively by solar energy, [flew] across America.”
In order to achieve its mission, the Solar Impulse was outfitted with a 208 ft. wingspan, 4 brushless, sensorless electric engines, and 11,628 monocrystalline silicon solar cells. The solar cells are spread out along the entire length of both wings and the horizontal stabilizer.
“At midday, each square meter of land surface receives, in the form of light energy, the equivalent of 1000 watts, or 1.3 horsepower of light power,” report the designers. “Over 24 hours, this sun energy averages out at just 250W/m². With 200m² of photovoltaic cells and a 12 % total efficiency of the propulsion chain, the plane’s motors achieve an average power of 8 HP or 6kW.”
Surplus solar energy collected throughout the day is stored in on-board batteries. Although the Solar Impulse pilots choose to glide without power at night whenever possible, this stored energy can be accessed and used to power the motors if necessary. Thanks to this technology, the plane can fly straight through from day to night without stopping.
The implications of the Solar Impulse’s achievement are massive. First, it proves that long-distance flight is possibly without burning any fuels, whether plant-based or petroleum. It also proves that people are interested in the myriad of ways solar energy can be put to use in our daily lives, and they’re cheering for more!
Say the engineers:
Our primary objective was to show that today’s technological innovations can achieve incredible things, like flying day and night powered only by solar energy without using any fuel, nor producing polluting emissions. That first step has now been reached.
But Solar Impulse is first and foremost an extraordinary human and scientific adventure that brings emotions back at the heart of scientific exploration; a revolutionary innovation conceived to be a unique flying laboratory for clean technologies; a vision driven by the pioneering spirit behind all great human adventures; an experimental journey to inspire others to be pioneers and innovators in their everyday life.
Unlike the creators of many advanced technologies, the Solar Impulse crew is interested in more than fame and fortune. As co-creator Bertrand Piccard likes to say: “Our airplane is not designed to carry passengers, but to carry a message.”
One way they’re spreading the message of clean energy is through the Solar Impulse Pedagogical Program. It is the project’s communication platform for young people, the ‘mouthpiece’ of its symbolic and philosophical values.
“It highlights the adventure, technology and scientific research elements of the project in order to develop young people’s curiosity, their taste for exploration and discovery and their pioneering spirit.”
So what’s next for this adventurous team of solar lovers? A trip around the world, of course:
Image via Solar Impulse