Solar-powered airplane makes first international flight

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Solar Impulse during its first flight on December 3, 2009
Image: Matth1.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The solar-powered airplane Solar Impulse touched down at the Brussels National Airport late Friday night, after completing a 13-hour flight from its home base in Payerne, Switzerland. It was the first international flight by a fully solar-powered aircraft.

The experimental aircraft was piloted by André Borschberg, co-founder and chief engineer for the Solar Impulse project, which hopes to circumnavigate the globe using only the sun's energy in 2013. "Our goal is to create a revolution in the minds of people...to promote solar energies -- not necessarily a revolution in aviation," Bertrand Piccard, the group's other co-founder, said in an interview after the flight.

The aircraft collects energy from the sun using 12,000 extremely thin solar cells affixed to the wings and tail section. An on-board battery can store enough electricity to fly all night, allowing the Solar Impulse to stay aloft indefinitely. This allowed the aircraft to maintain a holding pattern over the Brussels airport as other flights landed and conditions were right for the Solar Impulse to land. Because the aircraft weighs only about 3,500 pounds and has a wingspan of 200 feet, it is extremely sensitive to wind and needs calm conditions to land safely.


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