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April 30, 2013

Solar Impulse To Make One Last Test Flight Before Cross-Country Trip



To its credit, the Solar Impulse plane has already made quite a bit of history. Going back to 2010 when it managed to be the first solar-powered aircraft to fly at night, it followed that up in 2012 when it went from Europe to North Africa, making the first intercontinental solar-powered flight ever. Now, Solar Impulse is going to make a new and even bigger challenge its goal for 2013: crossing the United States.

Dubbed the Solar Impulse Across America trip, and set to launch early next month, the plan calls for the Solar Impulse to take off from San Francisco and head for New York, with plans to reach New York by early July. If that sounds like an unusually long time, it's because that there will be a few side trips in store for the plane. Scheduled stops for the Solar Impulse include Phoenix, Dallas, and even Washington, D.C., so it won't be taking the straight overland route.

The Solar Impulse itself measures 208 feet, approximately the same as a standard jumbo jet, but only weighs about as much as a car does, meaning the array of solar cells lining the wings and the like produce more than enough power to keep the Solar Impulse aloft. Plus, there's a surplus of power generated that's sufficient to allow the Solar Impulse to store power and make night flying—like the kind previously mentioned—possible. The Solar Impulse recently completed its last test flight from the San Francisco Bay area, and now looks to Phoenix for its first stop on its way to New York.


Certainly, the idea of solar-powered air travel is a welcome one for a lot of users, but the problem is that there's a lot of power required to make it happen. The massive 208 foot Solar Impulse carries just one person, and trying to fit the equivalent of several thousand—even several million—such craft over the skies at any one time is outlandish to say the least. Some, like Ross Aimer, a former United Airlines captain and current CEO of Aero Consulting Experts, believes that under current conditions, replacing a commercial airliner with a solar-powered craft would require an area of solar collection the size of two football fields. But it's still a good start, and the cross-country flight will be both streamed and written up at Solar Impulse's website.

Indeed, using different kinds of power in transport is a smart idea. Getting away from fossil fuels, which by their very nature are inherently finite, is also a smart idea. But the execution of such a practice is difficult to say the least, and poses significant challenges. Substances like pentacene, which upgrade solar cell performance, can help, but major advances still need to occur. After all, cutting the amount from two football fields to one is a major advance, but nowhere near what's required.

Still, the journey of 3,000 miles must begin with a single step, or in this case, a solar-powered airplane that can accommodate one rider. The Solar Impulse is a perfect example of that first step.


Edited by Rory J. Thompson

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