New feats of solar technology continue to amaze. A plane called Solar Impulse, weighing only as much as a midsize car, was powered by 12,000 solar cells that spread across its massive wingspan of "210 feet from tip to tip" according to TreeHugger. It took off from Switzerland at 6:15am yesterday, and the Solar Impulse blog reported victory early this morning: "HB-SIA and pilot André Borschberg are back from the night skies."
As most of us know, when the sun sets, problems arise for solar power, which notoriously underperforms in inclement weather. But this didn't stop 57 year old pilot and Chief Executive of Solar Impulse, Andre Borschberg who, according to USA News Week, is a "40 year flying veteran" and Bertrand Picard, who was known for his "record-setting 1999 balloon flight around the world" from taking on the challenge to fly through the night on stored lithium battery power alone. Their goal 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" says TreeHugger. If the plane stayed in flight for 24 hours straight, it would set a world record. Not only did it do this, but it had power to spare, staying in the air for over 26 hours.
The New York Times reported the numbers, officially announcing that "the flight was the longest in history by a solar-powered craft, reaching an altitude of just over 28,000 feet above sea level, at an average speed of 23 knots, around 25 miles per hour."
According to Bloomberg Businessweek, this seven-year project was "part of the project's 100 million Swiss franc ($95 million) effort sponsored by Deutsche Bank AG, Germany's biggest bank, to eventually pilot the first flight around the globe in an airplane using only solar energy."
Though suffering through discomforts such as freezing temperatures and a cramped cockpit, Borschberg was reported as saying in the New York Times that the flight was "the most incredible one of my flying career, just sitting there and watching the battery charge level rise and rise thanks to the sun and then that suspense, not knowing whether we were going to manage to stay up in the air the whole night. I have just flown more than 26 hours without using a drop of fuel and without causing any pollution!"
News sources are buzzing about this feat, which promises to give credibility to the reality of entirely solar-powered transportation.
The Associated Press recalls Picard's moving words to the pilot as the two embraced after the flight: "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."
So what's to come for this little plane and its ace pilot? Bloomberg Businessweek reports that "the next challenge will be for Solar Impulse to cross the Atlantic, then an around-the-world flight set for 2013 using a second prototype that goes into construction this summer." We'll all keep our eyes to the skies to see.