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Solar-Powered Plane Flies for 26 Hours

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July 10, 2010 – Comments (6)

This is just so cool.

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Solar-Powered Plane Flies for 26 Hours
By ALAN COWELL
Published: July 8, 2010

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/09/world/europe/09plane.html?_r=1

[excerpt]

Slender as a stick insect, a solar-powered experimental airplane with a huge wingspan completed its first test flight of more than 24 hours on Thursday, powered overnight by energy collected from the sun during a day aloft over Switzerland.

The organizers said the flight was the longest and highest by a piloted solar-powered craft, reaching an altitude of just over 28,000 feet above sea level at an average speed of 23 knots, or about 26 miles per hour.

The plane, Solar Impulse, landed where it had taken off 26 hours and 9 minutes earlier, at Payerne, 30 miles southwest of the capital, Bern, after gliding and looping over the Jura Mountains, its 12,000 solar panels absorbing energy to keep its batteries charged when the sun went down.

The pilot, André Borschberg, 57, a former Swiss Air Force fighter pilot, flew the plane from a cramped, single-seat cockpit, buffeted by low-level turbulence after takeoff and chilled by low temperatures overnight.

....

The project’s designers had set out to prove that — theoretically at least — the plane, with its airliner-size, 208-foot wingspan, could stay aloft indefinitely, recharging batteries during the day and using the stored power overnight. “We are on the verge of the perpetual flight,” Dr. Piccard said.

The project’s founders say their ambition is for one of their craft to fly around the world using solar power. The propeller-driven Solar Impulse, made of carbon fiber, is powered by four small electric motors and weighs around 3,500 pounds. During its 26-hour flight, the plane reached a maximum speed of 68 knots, or 78 miles per hour, the organizers said.

6 Comments – Post Your Own

#1) On July 11, 2010 at 12:49 AM, uclayoda87 (29.51) wrote:

Not to be mistaken by markets kept aloft by perpetual credit.

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#2) On July 11, 2010 at 12:47 PM, binve (< 20) wrote:

uclayoda87,

Indeed! :)..

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#3) On July 11, 2010 at 1:16 PM, blesto (31.64) wrote:

Cool stuff!

I believe they want to use that high flying tenhnology to replace communication satellites.

The only way to maintain and service satellites is to shuttle Astronauts at great expense. To upgrade you need a whole new satellite.

With the solar planes, a company would have two or more in rotation. One always on the ground for repairs and upgrades.  

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#4) On July 11, 2010 at 3:20 PM, binve (< 20) wrote:

blesto ,

>>Cool stuff!

Inded!

>>I believe they want to use that high flying tenhnology to replace communication satellites.

While perhaps a long term goal, this is infeasible as any sort of near term goal. FYI, I am a mechancial engineer in the aerospace industry and have a lot of experience with several communciation schemes.

Commuincation satellies covers a *wide* range of satellitles. But ususally when people talk about com-sats, they are referring to geostationary satellites. These cannot be replace by airplanes anytime soon. The reason being is station keeping. A geosat (because of its orbit) is a very precise target and a lot of data at very high data rates can be transferred (and then re-directed to a very large area because it can see a large portion of the Earth from its vantage point).

Airplanes and blimps "wander" which means that all antennas on the ground need to be "steerable" (they can be fixed when talking to a geostat. This is why all the DirectTV dishes can be mounted by yourself and just pointed once).

Now there is another system that airplanes would be perfect for, that is spread sprectrum and broad based messaging. The Globalstar constellation is a set of satellites in LEO (almost MEO) orbit. As such, no statellite is fixed with respect to the ground. But a device has access to send message to part of the constellation of satellites since statisically there are 3-4 in view of any spot on the ground at any time. The GPS satellite constellation opeartes on the exact same principle in a similar orbit.

Now, if we had a constellation of low cost airplanes, then message and communication transfer would be a lot more cost effective and more devices would be invented to take advantage (the cost of accessing the Globalstar network is very high)...

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#5) On July 11, 2010 at 4:10 PM, blesto (31.64) wrote:

How about SIRI, and what are the expected lifespans of their satellites?

When they first launched I'm sure they had the best and latest tech, but I'd imagine they would love to upgrade.

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#6) On July 11, 2010 at 7:46 PM, binve (< 20) wrote:

>>How about SIRI, and what are the expected lifespans of their satellites?

The bus is based on the SSL (Loral) 1300 bus. This is one of the geosat bus designs and typically these have a 15 year design life. However the Sirius orbit is highly elliptical (which means it gets closer to the earth and more thermal effects from the earth) which will degrade OSRs faster. If I had to guess, I bet the design life for each satellite is 10-12 years. 

Sirius is definitely planning on lauching future satellites (presumably in the same orbital configuration). It would be interesting to see if future radio providers (probably not Sirius since they have sunk a lot of money into the current uplink/downlink system) might look into an airplane based approach like you orignally proposed.

What is interesting is that unmanned solar panel covered airplanes have already stayed aloft for weeks/months at a time. And for a signal station, it would definitely be unmanned. It is just cool that this experiment was for a person (which would mean communications payload if the pilot was removed for and unmanned flight). Things definitely look to be progressing that way.

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