Solar plane to embark on coast-to-coast U.S. tour

Before trying to fly around the world without using a drop of fossil fuel, the Solar Impulse visits the U.S. -- touching down in Phoenix, Dallas, New York, and other cities.

The Solar Impulse is the first solar-powered airplane that can fly at night. Solar Impulse/Screenshot by Michelle Meyers/CNET

The Solar Impulse has defied all expectations in its short four-year life.

First, the solar-powered airplane got off the ground in 2010 and stayed aloft for a total of 87 minutes without using a drop of fuel; then, it completed its first international flight traveling from its home of Switzerland to Brussels in about 13 hours. By its first birthday, the plane met the goal of staying aloft for 24 hours -- flying at night with solar energy captured during the day. It has since completed a 1,550-mile journey from Madrid, Spain, to Rabat, Morocco.

Now, before it embarks on its new goal to fly around the world in 2015 , the Solar Impulse is making the rounds across the U.S., letting aviation buffs ohh and ahh over its unique slender design, thousands of solar cells, and aerodynamic efficiency.

The plane is scheduled to depart from its temporary home at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. on May 1, according to the Associated Press. From there, it will touch down in Phoenix, Dallas, Atlanta, Nashville, Washington, D.C., and New York. The goal is to reach its final stop at New York's Kennedy Airport in early July using only the power of the sun's rays.

"We want to inspire the young generation to become pioneers, to help them find and develop their passion," Solar Impulse's co-founder, pilot, and CEO André Borschberg said in a press conference today, according to the Associated Press.

Despite a wingspan equal to that of a Boeing 747, the Solar Impulse weighs only around 1.7 tons, about the same as an average car. More than 12,000 solar cells mounted on the wing supply renewable solar energy to the four 10-horsepower electric motors. During the day, the solar panels charge the plane's lithium polymer batteries, allowing it to fly at night.

"The more you fly the more energy you have stored in the batteries, so it's absolutely fabulous to imagine all the possibilities the people can have with these technologies in their daily lives," Solar Impulse co-founder and chairman Bertrand Piccard said, according to the Associated Press.

The Solar Impulse is not intended to replace commercial fuel-powered jets. The plane cruises at an average of 40-miles-per-hour and its lightweight components are vulnerable to damage in storms. Also, too many clouds may hamper its ability to recharge its batteries.

As the Solar Impulse gears up for its U.S. tour, it will be taking several test flights around the San Francisco Bay Area in April, according to the Associated Press.

Tags:
Sci-Tech
NASA
About the author

Dara Kerr, a freelance journalist based in the Bay Area, is fascinated by robots, supercomputers and Internet memes. When not writing about technology and modernity, she likes to travel to far-off countries.

 

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