solar impulse, solar plane,
AP/Walter Bieri
Inventors Bertrand Piccard, left, and Andre Borschberg, right, celebrate with test pilot Markus
Scherdel, center, after successful test flights of the Solar Impulse on Dec. 3, 2009.

Solar-Powered Airplane Has Liftoff

December 05, 2009 08:00 AM
by Haley A. Lovett
Solar Impulse, a solar-powered aircraft, made history this week by becoming the first manned solar plane to take off using its own power.

Other Solar Crafts Have Flown, None Have Taken Off

Aircrafts have been taking to the sky using the power of the sun since 1974, when the first remote-controlled solar-powered craft took flight. Since then, many manned and unmanned solar crafts have been developed and flown by private companies such as solar-flight pioneer AeroVironment, and by NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center. Even today there are other solar-powered crafts, such as the Sunseeker II, that are testing long-distance flights using a combination of solar and other energy sources.

The Solar Impulse project was launched in 2003. The project has received funding or other support from organizations in the business and scientific community, including Deutsche Bank and the European Space Agency. 

The goal of the team that developed the Solar Impulse was to create a piloted solar aircraft that used no outside power sources for takeoff, flight or landing. The researchers want the Solar Impulse to have the capability to absorb and store energy from the sun during the day, and then use that stored energy to continue flying at night, with a goal of flying for 36 hours without stopping. In the summer of 2009, a prototype for the Solar Impulse was shown in Switzerland.

Over the last few months, the Solar Impulse team has been working hard to get the craft off the ground. In November the craft successfully drove down the runway, showing that it could power itself and be successfully steered by a pilot. On Dec. 3, the airplane, piloted by Markus Scherdel, flew a distance of 350 meters at a height of just a few feet.

Background: The history of solar-powered flight

Many solar-powered aircraft have flown over the past few decades.

The very first solar-powered flight took place on Nov. 4, 1974. The craft was launched using a catapult and was controlled remotely. Then came the Gossamer Penguin, designed based on the famous Gossamer Albatross. To keep weight down, the craft was first manned by a 13-year-old boy.

The Solar Challenger used a combination of solar and battery power, which allowed for longer flights, including a cross-Channel flight that took place on July 7, 1981. This was followed by the unmanned propeller-driven Pathfinder, which reached more than 70,000 feet in 1997. Later came the Pathfinder Plus, the Centurion, Helios and many more. Each plane improved upon the aerodynamic design, solar cells and batteries of the previous, allowing for longer durations of uninterrupted flight.

One craft recently in the news is the Sunseeker II, a solar plane that uses battery power for takeoff and flies at about 40 mph using solar power. Last spring the Sunseeker II made a tour of Europe. According to Wired Magazine, Solar Flight, the company that makes the Sunseeker, says that the plane has made more one-hour flights than any other solar-powered plane.

Related Topics: Other momentous flights

Perhaps one of the most famous moments in aviation is the Dec. 17, 1903, flight at Kitty Hawk by the Wright Brothers, commonly accepted as the first manned flight in a motorized aircraft.

But other aviators have claimed that the Wright brothers were not the first to achieve such a feat. One such account took place on Aug. 18, 1903, and was piloted by Karl Jatho, who claims to have flown a distance of about 60 feet.

As plane design became more advanced, higher and longer flights were completed. In 1932, Amelia Earhart became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic, completing the trip from Newfoundland to Ireland in just under 15 hours.

But not all record-breaking endeavors were a complete success. The largest fixed wing aircraft ever built, the 750-passenger “Spruce Goose,” made its first flight in 1947. Howard Hughes got the plane to drive through water at 90 mph and then fly for about a minute. After its maiden voyage the plane never flew again.

The first commercial jet did not take off until a few years later when, in 1952, the British Overseas Airways Corporation flew 36 passengers from London to Johannesburg.

Reference: Solar power

To learn more about the history, technology and uses of solar power, see our Solar Power Web Guide.

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