New solar airplane unveiled in Switzerland

The Solar Impluse HB-SIA is designed to fly day and night without fuel. A prototype is scheduled for a test flight before the end of the year.

After a six-year effort, the prototype of a new solar-powered aircraft was unveiled at a Swiss airfield on Friday by its future pilots and promoters Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg.

Dubbed the Solar Impluse HB-SIA, the airplane is designed to fly both day and night without the need for fuel and will begin test flights by year's end.

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 Solar Impulse HB-SIA
The Solar Impulse HB-SIA Solar Impulse

At a press conference at the plane's Duebendorf airfield near Zurich, Piccard made clear the goal of the aircraft is to prove the business viability and profitability of renewable energy.

"If an aircraft is able to fly day and night without fuel, propelled solely by solar energy, let no one come and claim that is impossible to do the same thing for motor vehicles, heating and air conditioning systems ,and computers," Piccard said.

After this year's initial test flight, a night flight is scheduled for 2010 to see if the plane can stay in the air for 36 hours.

On the horizon in 2012, Piccard and Borschberg plan to fly the next generation of the Solar Impulse, the HB-SIB, around the world in five legs over the course of four to six days. That will make another global trip for adventurer Piccard, who in 1990 piloted the first round-the-world hot-air balloon flight with his Orbiter 3.

"Through this project we are proclaiming our conviction that a pioneering spirit and political vision can together change society and put an end to fossil fuel dependency," said Piccard.

The Solar Impulse joins the ranks of other solar-powered airplanes, including Qinetiq's Zephyr and NASA's Helios.