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New solar plane takes first test flight

Switzerland's Solar Impulse, the first solar plane designed to fly day and night without fuel, takes its initial test flight, traveling a distance of 1,148 feet.

Switzerland's Solar Impulse solar plane has finally taken flight.

The first plane designed to fly day and night without fuel, the Solar Impulse HB-SIA lifted off for the first time on Thursday at 13:11 Swiss time, reported its promoters and co-founders Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg. The plane took to the air from its home at Dubendorf Airfield, near Zurich, Switzerland, traveling 1 meter (3.2 feet) off the ground and landing successfully after flying 350 meters (1,148 feet).

The Solar Impluse lifts off for first test flight
The Solar Impluse lifts off for first test flight Solar Impulse/Stephane Gros

The first flight of the Solar Impulse prototype evoked a huge wave of applause from its team, who had spent the past several weeks running ground tests to check acceleration, braking, and engine power. After those tests passed with flying colors, the word was given for pilot Markus Scherdel to man the plane for the test trip.

The flight came after years of research, testing, and labor to design and construct the Solar Impulse.

"This is the culmination of six years of intense work by a very experienced team of professionals," said Borschberg in a statement. "This first "flea hop" successfully completes the first phase of Solar Impulse, confirming our technical choices."

As part of its initial test flight, the Solar Impulse's solar panels were not yet connected or used. Following this positive outcome, the plane is set to be dismantled and moved to an airfield at Payerne, almost two hours away. Early next year, the team plans to launch the Impulse on its first solar test flights, slowly increasing the distance each time until the craft is ready to take its first night flight using solar energy.

Though the Impulse is as wide as a Boeing 747, it weighs only around 1.7 tons. The 12,000 solar cells mounted on the wing are designed to provide renewal solar power to the plane's four electric motors. The solar panels also charge the craft's batteries by day, allowing it to fly at night.

The Solar Impulse returns to the ground.
The Solar Impulse returns to the ground. Solar Impulse/Stephane Gros

For now, the team is basking in the success of this small but critical first step, yet is thinking of the future and the challenge ahead.

"For over 10 years now, I have dreamt of a solar aircraft capable of flying day and night without fuel--and promoting renewable energy," said Piccard in a statement. "Today, our plane took off and was airborne for the very first time. This is an unbelievable and unforgettable moment! On the other hand, I remain humble in the face of the difficult journey still to be accomplished--it's a long way between these initial tests and a circumnavigation of the world."