Solar Powered Plane to Fly Across the US

by Nancy Atkinson on March 29, 2013

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The Solar Impulse, a solar-powered plane, flies over Switzerland. Credit: Solar Impulse.

The Solar Impulse, a solar-powered plane, flies over Switzerland. Credit: Solar Impulse.

On May 1, the world’s first solar-powered plane will take off from Moffett Field in Mountain View, California — the home of NASA’s Ames Research Center – and fly across the US to New York. Even though the Solar Impulse plane could probably fly non-stop, day and night with no fuel, instead it will make several stops in US cities such as Phoenix, Dallas, and Washington, D.C. This would be a kind of “get to know you” tour for the US while the founders of Solar Impulse, Swiss pilot Bertrand Piccard and and pilot Andre Borschberg, want to spread their message of sustainability and technology.

“It carries one pilot and zero passengers, but it carries a lot of messages,” Piccard said during a press briefing yesterday. “We want to inspire as many people as possible to have that same spirit: to dare, to innovate, to invent.”

The solar plane made its first intercontinental flight from Spain to Morocco last June, flew continuously through the night in 2010, and by 2015 they hope to fly a similar aircraft around the world.

The Solar Impulse HB-SIA has 12,000 solar cells built into its 64.3-meter (193-foot) wings. That’s longer than an entire Boeing 747 airplane but it weighs just 1,600 kg (3,500 lb), less than a car. It is powered by four electric motors.

Originally built only to prove the possibility of flying day and night, their goal for future flights is to fly for up to five days and five nights, all by one pilot. Such a feat has never been accomplished.

They are using meditation and hypnosis (Bertrand is a psychologist who uses hypnosis) to train the pilots as they prepare to fly on very little sleep, Borschberg said. He added that they are working on an autopilot system would have to be built on the next plane to allow for some rest.

The first stop for the Solar Impulse as it crosses the United States will be Phoenix, followed by Dallas and then one of three cities: Atlanta, Nashville or St. Louis. It will then stop outside Washington D.C. before heading on to New York.

The Solar Impulse team said the stopovers will be a great occasion to spread Solar Impulse’s message meant to inspire people. “Only by challenging common certitudes can there be change and, through conferences on educational themes, Solar Impulse wishes to motivate everybody to become a pioneer in the search for innovative solutions for society’s biggest challenges,” the team said.

You can check on the planned stopovers at the Solar Impulse website.

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also is the host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast and works with Astronomy Cast. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Olaf2 March 29, 2013 at 7:35 PM

I have doubts that solar power will actually makes commercial planes fly.
Unless it is a Zeppelin.

Paul Gracey March 30, 2013 at 12:59 AM

Not commercial flight with the solar panels on the wings as this one has, but electric aircraft are making great strides. See the CAFE Foundation website. As the battery technology improves, and PV solar becomes an ever increasing part of the power generation grid, we will see it happen.

Olaf2 March 30, 2013 at 2:13 AM

But solar power is limited per square meter. The sun output is limited.

Even better batteries won’t alter the fact that you will need external sources on the ground to charge them. Unless you keep the air plane on the ground for multiple days until the batteries are charged. This is not very economical if the plane is stuck to the ground.

Andrew Planet March 29, 2013 at 8:39 PM

Apart from the auto pilot, using a web cam with a satellite link on board in combination with simple flight sensors, including GPS, would turn the plane into a drone during the time the pilot slept. That would mean that the pilot could get a full nights sleep whilst controllers monitored the flight from some base and they could always wake up the pilot with some foolproof method if some flight problem came up.

The only extra weight you’d need is a smart satellite internet phone with a built in webcam plus with GPS and, quoting from Wikipedia,” More recent satellite phones are similar in size to a regular mobile phone while some prototype satellite phones have no distinguishable difference from an ordinary smartphone. Satphones are popular on expeditions into remote areas where terrestrial cellular service is unavailable.” I don’t think that charging up that type of phone will drain the batteries much. :-)

Oh, if the pilots seat can be bent backwards and extended a bit, then you’ve got a basic bed. If the seat can be bent forward whilst on auto pilot then that create a little living space in which to exercise, eat and do other needs. The pilot could even control the plane wirelessly from the back from a tablet computer say. Having the internet on board would also give the pilot a lot of things to do.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satellite_phone

Andrew Planet March 29, 2013 at 9:08 PM

How odd that what I was writing suddenly changed to something about ‘its being moderated.” That’s never happened to me before on this website. Is that new? I lost a good bit I’d written about on some other website today and for after spending a great deal of my time writing on this one, I don’t want that happening to me twice in a space of a few hours. Having refreshed, the moderator message has now gone, there’s no sign of what I’ve written and I’ve left in a doubt as to whether I’ve lost that work too. I’ll just copy and paste it on some service that won’t do that to me and not write on this one again. Its too much hassle!

Yeah, how come the moderator message has not come out on this post. You give cause to doubt as to the effecting of good business

Aqua4U March 29, 2013 at 9:55 PM

Sometimes a server does an automatic time out.. if you take too long or are not making concurrent entries. Didja say something beyond the rules of the chat room?

Andrew Planet March 29, 2013 at 11:24 PM

Thanks, you are always helpful and have helped encourage my creativity before by contributing your own views. But that’s what happened and I know I’ll get better service to contribute to and the same facts from which to learn. I did get a, this is being moderated, message which never happens with this website. I did send a note of complaint through their service to tell them that i understand that it might be a mistake localised to one person and not all of their staff. I used very nice neutral scientific language as usual and even referenced my material from the webpages I got it from . I am posting what i wrote elsewhere in a few minutes. I’ll post the link here too.

Andrew Planet March 29, 2013 at 11:31 PM
Aqua4U March 30, 2013 at 12:09 AM

Thanks for the link.. I added it to my bookmarks and will explore them further. A comment about your comment there(?) concerning remotely controlling an aircraft attempting to break duration records. This might be considered ‘breaking the rules’ in some circles? That is, pilot participation may be a requirement. Using Wiki info. can sometimes despoil intent as not all info. from them is verifiable, or even plausible.

I DO like the idea of having a ‘live’ link on board record setting attempts – allows vicarious web participation. (UT’s VSP is kind of like that!)

Some webpages do not allow un-moderated comments as a matter of course. Every comment judged for value on topic prior to being posted. There IS a trend to disallow comments in some web sites due in no small part to the effects of ‘trolls’ crapping up normal commentary. UT has had it’s share of ‘trolls’, but UT does a GREAT job monitoring that!

Andrew Planet March 29, 2013 at 9:15 PM

How odd that what I was writing suddenly changed to something about ‘its being moderated.” That’s never happened to me before on this website. Is that new? I lost a good bit I’d written about on some other website today and for after spending a great deal of my time writing on this one, I don’t want that happening to me twice in a space of a few hours. The moderator message has now gone, there’s no sign of what I’ve written and I’ve left in a doubt as to whether I’ve lost that work too. I’ll just copy and paste it on some service that won’t do that to me and not write on this one again. Its too much hassle!

Aqua4U March 29, 2013 at 9:53 PM

My.. that’s a BIG BIRD! Back in the mid 80′s I met a fellow at the Solar Expo and Energy Resources (SEER) convention in Willits CA. He had his solar powered plane with him. He’d flown it all the way across the USA! Unfortunately, he crash landed when he got to Kitty Hawk NC, his destination, and broke a couple ribs. The trip took him a month, flown in incremental legs. Sometimes he was towed aloft by somebody’s old pick up truck! So he didn’t exactly set the record for a solo solar powered trip. Still, what a HOOT!

Me March 30, 2013 at 4:01 AM

Damn Aqua, I didn’t realize that. I lived for a spell in Fremont, CA off of route 880. Worked in Palo Alto & Mountain View for a spell back then. I was sewing-my-oats of sorts back in 1984/’85. I adore the Bay Area. So beautiful to say the least. Going back for a relaxing visit hopefully by mid summer for a week. Guess I had my head stuck in Golden State Park’s sand.Take care…

DreadPirateZed March 30, 2013 at 8:30 AM

This plane sounds very cool, but it is most definitely not “the world’s first solar-powered plane”… The Gossamer Penguin flew in 1980, and I’m not even sure that THAT was the first.
I don’t mean to pick nits, but that’s a pretty glaring error to have in the first sentence. I suspect you meant something along the lines of “the Solar Impulse will attempt to make the first transcontinental solar-powered flight”?

Me April 1, 2013 at 1:31 AM

I guess they are just trying to ‘perfect’ solar flight. A decent try. Would be great if they could come up w/a way to have a car & jet plane w/the power ratings of fossil fuels HP in each vehicle. I am a dreamer ;-).

Robin Kamilos April 1, 2013 at 6:59 PM

Does anyone know the flight path? I would love to be able to see it fly over, in Folsom Ca.

Andrew Planet March 30, 2013 at 12:27 AM

Oh, thanks, I was not aware that full time pilot participation might be required. Still, it would be interesting to set a record for the longest solar powered flight with a human being on board, partially remotely or not. I could have done without wiki seeing as I knew about the topics well enough and might not do so again as you thoughtfully advise. I just posted the links for those who don’t know much about the subject. As for the possibility that I might be a troll, my name is legally Bona fide (That’s the name on my passport) and the publisher of The Universe Today himself whom I greatly admire, Fraser Cain, does mention me by name a lot over and over again, on live video Google+ Hangouts in about three distinct groups as I ask questions and make comments by typing in them in. He really surprised me once by sending me an invitation to actively take part in a Google+ Hangout as one of those on the screen, not as a member of the public. Unfortunately I had not configured any of of my 3 quite new computers at the time with my recently upgraded fast broadband and I was only able to participate fleetingly on and off, though at least I did. I still follow him on Google+ but I’ll make any posts on whatever he publishes there first, to give him credit and then I’ll do so so here and somewhere else simultaneously, just in case. Thank Aqua4U, you bring out the best in me and it would not surprise me if others told you that too

Andrew Planet March 30, 2013 at 12:32 AM

Oh yeah, a vicarious live link does sell much better. Remember the highest sky jump (space jump) a few months ago ever made by anyone and how much publicity that got live on the day and afterwards. That was privately funded and very well at that

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