Aircraft range has been a problem since the Wright Brothers, usually meaning too much mission for the fuel aboard. But after last week’s first flight of the sunlight-powered SolarStratos, range problems just might be headed for a permanent solution.
The Swiss two-seat electric aircraft, originally created to mimic the mythical flight of Icarus, uses electricity harnessed from the solar panels spread across its entire 82-foot wingspan to power the 32 kW electric motor and spin a 7.21 foot four-blade propeller at 2,200 rpm.
The SolarStratos departed at 8 a.m. local time into calm winds from Payerne, Switzerland, and flew for seven minutes. While last week’s flight climbed to only 1,000 feet, future flights are planned to carry the SolarStratos to 82,000 feet, the edge of the stratosphere. In order to reach the stratosphere, the unpressurized SolarStratos demands the pilots don spacesuits to deal with the freezing minus-94 degrees F temperatures. Just to keep things interesting, there is no way to use a parachute in the case of an emergency.
The wings carry approximately 238 square feet of solar cells to create the energy needed to run the electric motor for 24 hours straight. Weighing in at about 992 pounds gross and with a 28-foot-long fuselage, SolarStratos engineers estimate the aircraft will be 90 percent efficient.