Preparations for round-the-world solar-powered flight

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November 8, 2005 Humans have now spent more than a 100 years under the spell of powered flight, regularly achieving milestones previously thought impossible and developing faster, bigger, deadlier, and more efficient aircraft in which to take to the skies. The challenges show no sign of abating as the second century of aviation begins, not just in terms of sheer human endeavour, but in respect to critical questions of environmental sustainability and renewable energy. The team that accomplished the first ever non-stop round-the-world flight in a balloon back in 1999 is embarking on a new project that will take see it repeat the journey - but this time it's in a solar-powered aircraft. Bertrand Piccard along with Andre Borschberg (an engineer and pilot and the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology (EPFL) and Brian Jones (who co-piloted on the Breitling Orbiter 3 on its record round-the-world flight) are aiming to complete a full night in the air during the first 36 hour solar-powered round-the-world flight during 2009.

Design and construction of the first prototype has begun and the detailed design and assembly of the plane will continue through 2006 and 2007 with the first test flights and a full night flight planned for 2008 and solar flights of several days’ duration anticipated for 2009. During 2009, it is planned that the solar plane will attempt several records, including the first solar crossing of a continent, the crossing of the Atlantic and a round-the-world flight with one stop in each continent.

The aim is "assemble the best brains available to develop the necessary technologies to design and build an aircraft capable of staying airborne without any external help, save from the sun". To this end scientific partner EPFL in Lausanne conducted preliminary research in several areas during 2003 including mechanics, thermodynamics, aerodynamics, electrical systems, composite materials, photovoltaic systems, energy transfer and storage and computer modeling to define the project's scope, which includes the goal of zero emissions and no use of any kind of embarked fuel whatsoever.

The team is currently assessing the space requirements of the pilots with a pre-mock-up – a plywood structure that will enable the pilots to assess the current design, and which will be followed by the real mock-up of the future SOLAR IMPULSE cockpit.

The pre-mock-up (pictured) is equipped with a mattressed floor and seat. The seat backrest has five different positions, and the pilot’s legs can be supported in several ways. Currently the team is working on designing the floor compartments that will house the waste collector system, survival equipment and food and water for two and three day missions. The team is also awaiting mock-ups of the electronic units which the compartments will carry.

Stating the "Round the World" goal brings the human achievement aspect to the fore and is designed to engender enthusiasm from the public and draw wider attention to the underlying issues of ecological sustainability and renewable energy. Solar powered aircraft are not new, but few have succeeded in capturing or storing enough energy to remain airborne for long periods of time.

Perhaps the most successful project to date is an aircraft under development by NASA that uses solar panels in conjunction with hydrogen fuel cells that it hopes will be useful as an airborne communications platforma and as a means of exploring the Martian atmosphere.

The HELIOS prototype reached a height of more than 96,000 feet in a test 17-hour test flight. Follow the links below to learn more.EPFL also participated in the success of the Breitling Orbiter 3 balloon and also conducted thermodynamic research for the America 's Cup winning yacht Alinghi.

Incidentally, much has been said about the history of powered flight in recent times, but manned ballooning is of course much older. It began in 1783 when Aine Robert and his crew lifted off from the gardens of the Tuileries on a two-hour flight watched byan estimated crowd of 400, 000 Parisians - alot more that the five people who showed up to watch the Wright Brothers historic 1903 flight.

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