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Piloted by Captain Piccard, the seasoned solar craft looks to set a fresh record

Today a solar plane embarked on what could be the first coast-to-coast trip ever by a piloted fuelless flier.  While the solar plane is landing at various destinations along the route, the multi-leg trek is expected to be the longest ever such trip.

I. Solar Impulse HB-SIA Flew High

With the cost of flight reaching all time highs due to a variety of factors -- passenger obesity, the cost of fossil fuels, and cuts in government subsidies, many are looking to alternative fuels and even solar as potential solutions to cut costs.  Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg took that idea and flew with it, launching the Solar Impulse project.

While many scoffed at the pair's lofty dreams, they defied critics tasting their first success in 2010 when the Solar Impulse HB-SIA prototype took flight.  

That craft had a wingspan of Airbus A340, but weighed a mere 1,600 kg (3,527 lb) thanks to its carbon fiber body.  By contrast a lean Airbus A340 weighs nearly 100 times that with an empty takeoff weight of around 129,000 kg.  Powered by four 10 horsepower brushless DC motors, that initial prototype was able to accomplish the first piloted day-to-night flight without fuel.

Seventy lithium polymer battery accumulators (weighing 400 kg total) can store 96 kWh of charge from the 200 sq-m of solar cells on the wings and tail.

Solar Impusl
The Solar Impulse HB-SIA flying in its record-setting 2012 Europe-to-Africa flight.

In 2012, that prototype completed a multi-leg trek from Switzerland to Morocco.

II. Building the Second-Gen. Impulse

Meanwhile the team was hard at work on larger successor, the Solar Impulse HB-SIB, which entered construction in 2011.  The wingspan was bumped from 63.4 meters (208 ft) to 72 meters (236 ft), and the weight capacity was up to 2,400 kg (5,291 lb), about the weight of the average automobile.  That's an incredible design, considering the wingspan rivals that of the 500-ton Airbus A380.

Aside from more solar power via a wider wingspan, the new model also had a pressurized cockpit and advanced avionics for trans-continental/trans-oceanic flights.  The new model could cruise at an altitude of 12,000 m (39,000 ft) versus 8,500 m (27,900 ft) in the previous design.  

The higher altitude allowed the plane to tap into faster jet currents, which begin at around 33,000 ft.  These currents should allow the craft to travel faster and conserve battery.

Solar Impulse designer
Robert "Röbi" Fraefel is heading the design of the second-gen. solar flier.

Bayer AG's (ETR:BAYN) Material Sciences division helped build the craft with its patented nanotechnology.  Additionally the craft uses lighter carbon fibers, which claim to have the highest strength-vs-weight ratios ever witnessed.  The HB-SIB is able to fly in the rain for the first time.

The second-generation model quadruples the battery capacity, to around 384 kWh.

III. Maiden Voyage

The current test flight, the third major trek for the HB-SIA, will pave the way for a 2015 attempt with the HB-SIB to circumnavigate the globe in 20-25 days, with six stops (and an average time aloft of 3 to 4 days between stops).  

Solar Impulse leg 1
Leg 1 of the Solar Impulse's coast-to-coast trip is in progress.

The current flight will also have five legs, each about a day.  The first kicked off today in San Francisco, Calif.  The craft will land tomorrow in Phoenix, Ariz.  Then in mid-May, the ultra-lightweight plane will begin the second leg of its trip, taking off in Phoenix and landing in Dallas, Tex. Toward the end of May, the third leg between Dallas and St. Louis, Mo. will be traveled, followed by the fourth leg to Washington, D.C.  Finally, the trip will end with a flight to New York City in late June or early July.

Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg will trade off piloting responsibilities during the various legs of the trip.  Captain Piccard is piloting the current first leg.  Between each leg the craft will be checked over to make sure it's not damaged in any way.

Bertrand Piccard
Captain Piccard, Solar Impulse co-founder is piloting the first leg. [Image Source: Meteo]

The cruising altitude for the trip will be 6,400 m (21,000 ft).  A similar trek is planned for 2014 using the under-construction HB-SIB, incorporating the lessons learned from this third test flight.

Sources: Google Maps [Live Flight Map], Solar Impulse [Live Stream]

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dat name
By MadMan007 on 5/3/2013 1:59:39 PM , Rating: 5
The captain's name makes this story 100x better.

RE: dat name
By Ristogod on 5/3/2013 2:07:35 PM , Rating: 3
Number One. You have the bridge.

RE: dat name
By edpsx on 5/3/2013 2:08:53 PM , Rating: 4
Make it so.

RE: dat name
By PitViper007 on 5/3/2013 2:29:04 PM , Rating: 3

RE: dat name
By FITCamaro on 5/3/2013 2:24:49 PM , Rating: 5
I'm going to take a Number Two.

RE: dat name
By ipay on 5/3/2013 2:56:45 PM , Rating: 5
A process that simply involves opening your mouth.

RE: dat name
By BRB29 on 5/3/2013 3:25:25 PM , Rating: 2

RE: dat name
By phxfreddy on 5/4/2013 11:40:57 AM , Rating: 2
Number 2. Number 2? Where is number 2? He had to go!

RE: dat name
By Kiffberet on 5/7/2013 7:57:55 AM , Rating: 2
Who does number 2 work for?

Thats right, you show that turd who's boss!

RE: dat name
By inperfectdarkness on 5/4/2013 9:29:59 AM , Rating: 2

passenger obesity?
By Flunk on 5/3/2013 2:42:16 PM , Rating: 2
passenger obesity
really that big a problem that it warrants mentioning? I'm not being snarky here, I'm genuinely curious about this one.

RE: passenger obesity?
By BRB29 on 5/3/2013 3:02:58 PM , Rating: 2
Yes, it's already been discussed before.

RE: passenger obesity?
By quiksilvr on 5/3/2013 3:06:26 PM , Rating: 2
Yes. National averages have been on the rise so a lot of factors (fuel stored, checked bag weight limits, overhead bin size limits) are affected. Given that most of these planes were made in the 70s, if the average weight of each of the 200+ passengers goes up 30-50 lbs, you are adding literally tons of extra weight.

RE: passenger obesity?
By BRB29 on 5/3/2013 3:13:22 PM , Rating: 5
and the seat space they take up. It's very uncomfortable sitting next to an overly obese person. If they just paid for 1st class, they would actually fit in the seat without oozing over to mine.

RE: passenger obesity?
By Amiga500 on 5/5/2013 1:00:56 PM , Rating: 2
Given that most of these planes were made in the 70s

Outside the states, in airlines in most other developed countries, the fleet age is usually kept under 15 years old...

RE: passenger obesity?
By quiksilvr on 5/13/2013 1:39:29 PM , Rating: 2
Um...great? Most other developed countries don't have over 300 million people with over 10,000 flights a day within their borders.

RE: passenger obesity?
By lelias2k on 5/4/2013 6:30:48 PM , Rating: 2
Did you take the time to click on the link?

RE: passenger obesity?
By MadMan007 on 5/4/2013 11:07:37 PM , Rating: 2
Clicking a link instead of writing a question that's answered in said link?

Ain't nobody got time for that.

RE: passenger obesity?
By TakinYourPoints on 5/5/2013 6:52:41 PM , Rating: 2
Absolutely. You can expect lower fuel efficiency when average cargo weight goes up 30%.

By futrtrubl on 5/3/2013 9:18:33 PM , Rating: 1
Does this really qualify as a trip when you are spending 2 weeks between each 1 day flight? I suppose if you are on holiday, but if you are going from A to B it seems a stretch.

RE: Trip
By flyingpants1 on 5/4/2013 2:22:08 PM , Rating: 1
The batteries take 2 weeks to charge!!

RE: Trip
By Strunf on 5/6/2013 7:34:08 AM , Rating: 3
The batteries charge during flight, and typically the solar panels provide enough energy to charge the batteries and allow the motor to work. From what I've read it's a net producer of energy as in it produces more energy during the flight than it needs.

RE: Trip
By chenedwa on 5/6/2013 3:39:13 PM , Rating: 2
Are the batteries solely being charged by the wings, or are they using an outlet to top them off before each flight (boooooo if this is the case)?

RE: Trip
By Strunf on 5/6/2013 7:42:20 AM , Rating: 3
The long stop times are to fully recheck the plane and probably present it to investors/public.

Weight of an average car, seriously?
By Spoelie on 5/6/2013 10:57:30 AM , Rating: 2
You're not seriously suggesting that 2.4 tons is the average weight of an automobile are you??

Smaller, economically sized cars like a VW Golf tip the scales at 1.3/1.4 tons, while stepping up to bigger Mercedes/Audi/BMWs will increase that to 1.7/1.8 tons.

Now that would be the car mix you usually see on the old continent, with an average around 1.5 (guesstimated).

I know the car mix in the US is more biased towards big trucks, but does that really increase the *average* to 2.4 tons? Talk about car obesity..

By freedom4556 on 5/8/2013 5:28:30 PM , Rating: 2
2.4 is a bit much, but it depends on whether they mean 2000 lbs is a ton or 2200 lbs is a ton. But yeah, the average new car is about 4000 lbs. A lot of it is safety features like crumple zones, high-energy absorbing bumper systems and a zillion airbags.

"This is from the It's a science website." -- Rush Limbaugh

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