The Solar Impulse is scheduled to circumnavigate the world using only solar power in 2012. In the run up to the actual flight, the team has been testing the current prototype. Today was another milestone for the Solar Impulse team as the Solar Impulse flew 350 meters (1149 feet).
We first wrote about the Solar Impulse in May of 2008 and again in March 2009. Originally, a prototype was supposed to make overnight flights in 2009 and fly around the world starting in 2010. As often happens, the schedule slipped. Here we are in December of 2009 and the Team has only accomplished a mini flight. As with, all projects, it has fallen behind.
Even though the Solar Impulse will not be making any major flights this year much less overnight flights, today’s flight shows that the current prototype was able to lift off despite the extremely long wings. The 63.4 meter (208 feet) long wings are disproportionately long in order to hold the multiple solar cells (11,628 – 10,748 on the wing, 880 on the horizontal stabilizer) necessary to power the plane. To put this into perspective, the wingspan of a 747 Jumbo Jet is 64.67 m (212 ft 2in) long, just 1.37 meters (approximately 4 ft) longer than the Solar Impulse. A Boeing 747 weighs at minimum 363 kilograms (800,000 pounds). The Solar Impulse weighs 1600 kilograms (3527 pounds).
Today’s flight wasn’t on solar power since the solar cells aren’t hooked up yet. The goal today was for the test pilot Markus Scherdel to be able to take off and land the prototype. Further flights will be conducted in 2010 and hopefully overnight flights will happen as well. Extensive testing of the HB-SIA prototype will continue through 2010. The final plane is slated to be built in 2011.
With the advances being made in solar energy these days, you have to wonder if the final flight won’t exceed the original idea conceived in 1999 by Bertrand Piccard a “psychiatrist and the aeronaut, who made the first non-stop round-the-world balloon flight”. When the Solar Impulse finally takes off to circumnavigate the globe it will be another flight trip to remember. Who knows, it might change air flight as we know it.