Photo via the NY Times
A solar-powered airplane piloted in Switzerland has just made a landmark achievement: It flew for well over 24 hours straight, continuing on its journey well after the sun went down. The story is making headline news all around the world, and for good reason -- it's a powerful example of the vast potential held by renewable energy. Here's an excerpt from the New York Times' front page story about the flight:
Slender as a stick insect, a solar-powered experimental airplane with a huge wing span completed its first test flight of more than 24 hours on Thursday, powered overnight by energy collected from the sun during a day aloft over Switzerland.The craft, called the Solar Impulse, boasts 12,000 solar cells, and does indeed have a massive wingspan: It's 210 feet from tip to tip. One of the primary aims of the project was to prove that the plane can feasibly stay in the air indefinitely -- charging the batteries during the daytime, and using stored energy for travel at night. They hope to one day fly around the world in a solar plane. And indeed, the successful test flight goes a good ways towards meeting that goal.
The organizers said the flight was the longest and highest by a solar-powered craft, reaching an altitude of 8,564 meters, just over 28,000 feet, above sea level, at an average speed of 23 knots, around 25 miles per hour.
There's a reason that this story is showing up on front pages of newspapers and cable news cycles around the world -- at a moment when a certain gushing oil disaster continues to remind people of the dangers of fossil fuels, here's a powerful parable of what clean energy is capable of. Yes, there is much work to be done before a solar airplane could be a viable mode of air travel -- if it ever could. But this event hints at the possibilities, and at what may be unlocked with further innovation and ingenuity in solar research.
The pilot was Andre Borschberg, who was astonished even as he safely landed the plane. From the Times:
"I've been a pilot for 40 years now, but this flight has been the most incredible one of my flying career," Mr. Borschberg said as he landed, according to a statement from the organizers of the project. "Just sitting there and watching the battery charge level rise and rise thanks to the sun. I have just flown more than 26 hours without using a drop of fuel and without causing any pollution."
And according to the AP, Bertrand Piccard, the project's co-founder, told the "When you took off it was another era. You land in a new era where people understand that with renewable energy you can do impossible things."
For a more detailed look at the plane's historic flight, see Discovery's narrative of its 24 solar-powered hours in the air.
See also: The 'Eternal Aircraft' Zephyr Solar Plane Aims for 14 Days in the Air
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