SolarStratos completes first flight

The solar-powered aircraft by SolarStratos completed its first test flight over Payerne, Switzerland. The ultra-light aircraft will one day be able to fly to the edge of space.

The Payerne airfield in Switzerland was once home to Solar Impulse, the first solar-powered aircraft to fly around the world. Last Friday, the same airfield was used for the maiden flight of SolarStratos.

The two-seater aircraft weighs just 450 kilograms and has a wingspan of 24.8 metres. Its wings are covered by 22 square metres of solar cells, which provide energy to its 32 KW electric engine and 20 kW lithium-ion battery. Able to fly for 24 hours, the aircraft will one day hold up to 100 kilograms and soar 20 kilometres to the upper reaches of the stratosphere.

Friday’s test flight lasted seven minutes at an altitude of 300 metres, reported designboom. The SolarStratos team will now study the results in preparation for a more ambitious 2018 flight to a higher altitude.

“We were impatient for this moment and are happy with our first flight and the way that the plane behaved,” said SolarStratos founder Raphael Domjan. He came up with the idea while pursuing another world’s first: circumnavigating the globe in the solar-powered boat PlanetSolar.

“We want to demonstrate that with current technology, it is possible to go beyond what fossil fuels offer,” said Domjan, adding that SolarStratos “opens a window to electric and solar-powered high-altitude aviation”.

The aircraft was designed and build by Elektra-Solar, a spin-off of the German Aerospace Center (DLR). Ultra-light airplanes like SolarStratos could one day play a key role in supplementing satellite technology and global communication.

Konstantin Kodak from DLR called the maiden flight of SolarStratos “an important step towards the application of high-altitude platforms for data transmission and remote sensing”.

Friday’s test flight was piloted by Damian Hirschier. “The plane is very nice to fly. It is responsive and it is obvious that it has been very well designed and built,” he said. “The SolarStratos team have an excellent baseline to work from as they progress to the next step of this pioneering and ambitious project.”

The team have considerable work ahead of themselves to overcome the human and technological challenges of a manned flight to the stratosphere. According to SolarStratos, a flight at that height cannot be pressurised and the plane and pilot will be subjected to temperatures of up to minus 70 degrees Celsius. The pilot will be obliged to wear a space suit, which means they will not be able to use a parachute.

The 2018 mission will last around five hours: two hours to ascend into space, fifteen minutes “to stay up with the stars”, and three hours to descend.


Image credit: SolarStratos

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