Solar Impulse Crosses Straits of Gibraltar and Into History

By Bill Moore

Posted: 05 Jun 2012

Flying at a quite leisurely airspeed of 47 km/h (29 mph), Solar Impulse left the European continent and made the short crossing to the coast of North Africa; its destination, Rabat Morocco. Its 'fuel' coming from 93 million miles away.

At the controls of the four-motored, solar-powered airplane is Bertrand Piccard on his first long distance flight. He departed Madrid-Barajas airport at 5:22 local time, anticipating a flight of 20 hours before touching down in the capital of Morocco as part of a celebration to inaugurate construction of one of the world's largest solar power farms.

The single-seat airplane began the historic flight to North Africa from its base in Payerne, Switzerland with Piccard's partner, Andre Borschberg at the controls. After a 17-hour flight that saw him climbing to more than 25,000 feet above the Pyrenees, he touched down in Madrid, Spain late in the night, the 208-feet wings lit--up like an alien mothership. Unfavorable weather delayed the second leg of the trip, keeping the plane and crew grounded several days.

Given its slow flying speed -- it is powered by four 10 hp electric motors and nearly 12,000 solar cells embedded in its wings and horizontal stabilizer -- winds aloft must not be too strong or turbulent and preferably blowing in a favorable direction. Additionally, any clouds must be below its maximum operating altitude of 7,500 meters; the solar cells need to collect as much energy during the day as possible. As Solar Impulsed neared the Spanish coastline, the cells were producing at a 60 percent power rate while the motors were consuming battery energy at 46 percent. The batteries have been at 100 percent state-of-charge all day, which is important, because they will be supplying the power needed for the flight after sundown.

The Solar Impulse is the first to two solar-powered, long-distance fliers that Piccard, Borschberg and their team plan to build. The second plane, HS-SIB, now in development, will carry two pilots who will attempt to fly around the world on solar energy alone, a daring adventure to be carried out in five stages starting in 2014. It will require staying aloft for several days and nights to cross the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The current Solar Impulse, registration number HS-SIA, demonstrated in 2011 that it could fly overnight in a 26-hour endurance flight over Switzerland with Borschberg at the controls.

Through the magic of the Internet and satellite communications, armchair adventurers around the world have been able to follow the flight in real-time with slow-scan video showing a helmeted and masked Piccard at the controls, as well as a detailed satellite-generated image of the landscape moving slowly below him. The live.solarimpulse.com web page also displays vital details, including air and ground speed, altitude, compass heading, as well as battery and energy data. For example, as Piccard crossed the coastline at roughly 9 AM US central time, the temperature at his altitude of 7,200 meters (23,600 ft) was a bone-chilling -11C (12F).

This week's EV World Insider Illustrated Edition 12.22 features the Solar Impulse, as well as two other solar adventurers: the PowerofOne solar car and PlanetSolar, the circumnavigation solar boat. In recognition of this historic flight, we are making it available today to all our readers.

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