Bertrand Piccard, the Swiss adventurer who was one of the two first men to fly around the world non-stop in a balloon in 1999, wants to achieve the same goal again. But next time, he will use a pollution-free, single-pilot solar-powered aircraft. The plane, named Solar Impulse, will look like a glider, but its 70-meter wingspan will exceed the one of a Boeing 747. Universe Today says a prototype will be ready next year and that the plane should be ready for its flight around the world in 2009.
The proposed aircraft resembles a glider, but with a mammoth 70-metre wingspan, exceeding that of a Boeing 747. Completely covered by solar cells and equipped with possibly two tail-mounted propeller engines, the plane will be capable of unassisted take-off and will carry the necessary batteries for night flying.
Below are some artistic renditions of the Solar Impulse (Credits for legends: ESA; credits for images: Oxyde.de-Sapristi / EPFL - Solar Impulse).
||The Solar Impulse single-pilot aircraft will be designed to fly around the world powered only by solar energy. It will be constructed using ultra-light materials and be able to fly during the night on batteries charged during the day.|
||The Solar Impulse aircraft will fly at an altitude of 10 000 to 11 000 metres above clouds to capture all available sunlight.|
The European Space Agency (ESA) is supplying its space expertise to the project.
Several domains have already been identified where European space expertise could provide leading-edge technologies: they include batteries and solar cells, energy management systems, ultra-light composite structures and monitoring systems to check the health of the pilot.
"The primary source of energy on our satellites is the Sun, as for Piccard's plane," says Pierre Brisson, Head of ESA's Technology Transfer Programme. "We have developed some of the world's best solar cells and advanced energy storage and power management systems, all key technologies onboard our spacecraft. They will be a good starting point for Piccard's effort."
The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) also provides scientific help to the project.
The EPFL institute has just completed a feasibility study for the project analysing existing technologies. Yves Perriard, director of EPFL Integrated Actuators Laboratory and one of the lead scientists of the study, confirmed: "We know that it is possible to create a structure completely powered by the Sun." EPFL was an obvious choice for this study. The institute conducted the thermodynamic research for the successful Piccard-Jones 1999 balloon flight and is the official scientific advisor to the Swiss Alinghi sailing team, current holder of the American Cup.
Besides deploying new technologies in the sky, what do these people want to prove?
"The challenge this time is to influence the history of air transportation by exploiting new technologies that satisfy the demands of our era for sustainable development and the use of only renewable forms of energy," Piccard explains.
And when will the Solar Impulse be ready?
The plan is to design and construct the first prototype aircraft in 2004-2005, with initial test flights in 2006. The next step is to complete night flights in 2007, initially at least 36 hours including one full night.
"It is planned to cross the Atlantic in 2008 and fly around the world with stop-overs in 2009," says [project manager] André Borschberg, "To fly around non-stop depends very much on how quickly we will have higher energy density batteries... but not before 2009."
More images are available on this page at the ESA website.
Sources: Universe Today, March 31, 2004; ESA website