Just before 7 a.m. local time on Wednesday, a lone pilot by the nameof Andre Borschberg took off from Payerne, Switzerland with aless-than-modest mission: a 24-hour, non-stop flight in a solar-poweredaircraft.
The plane — the Solar Impulse – is powered by four, 10-horsepowerelectric motors and 12,000 solar cells, a configuration that allows itto fly at an average of 40 miles per hour. At its peakdaytime elevation, the Solar Impulse will travel at approximately 28,000 feet. If all goes according to plan, at this high altitude the planewill gather enough solar energy during the day portion of the flight tokeep it soaring once the sun goes down.
Depending on how things pan out, Borschberg and the Solar Impulseteam on the ground in Switzerland will decide by 8 p.m. if they’ve gotenough juice to make it through the night. If Borschberg gets the greenlight, he will begin to descend roughly two hours before sunset and flythrough the night at around 4,900 feet.
All told, it took 70 engineers and designers to construct the firstprototype of the plane, which has a wingspan of over 200 feet and weighs 3,520 pounds. One of the members of that team is Bertrand Piccard, whois internationally known for his own air venture. He was the one who, in 1999, successfully completed the first circumnavigation of the world in a balloon.
The team had planned for this trip to take place last week — whendays in the northern hemisphere were longer than are they currently —but a key piece of communication equipment malfunctioned and pushed thehistoric flight back to today.
“The flight is crucial to the credibility of the project,” saidPiccard. The team does not expect solar technology to replacejet-propelled engines anytime soon. But this flight, according to what the Solar Impulse team told the Associated Press, is meantto demonstrate that emissions-free air travel is possible and to promote new energy-efficient technology.