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Headlines Published on 14 July 2005

Title Flying on an Impulse to promote solar powered air travel

The sun may have caused Icraus’ downfall during his mythical flight but Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard is hoping – with the help of the European Space Agency (ESA) – he can harness its power to propel him around the world in a solar-powered aeroplane, Solar Impulse.

Artist’s impression of how Solar Impulse will look. © ESA
Artist’s impression of how Solar Impulse will look.
Despite holding the record of making the first non-stop around-the-world hot-air balloon flight in 1999, the Swiss adventurer will be looking for more than kicks on his planned around-the-world flight on Solar Impulse, which he is building with the ESA’s help.

“Solar Impulse will promote the idea of a new aviation era using cleaner planes powered by the almost infinite energy of the Sun rather than the dirty, finite reserves of fossil fuels,” says Piccard.

The transport sector, both by road and air, is one of the world’s biggest emitters of climate-changing greenhouse gases. Renewable energy sources – such as solar, wind and hydraulic power – are seen as a feasible alternative to weaning the world off its current dependence on fossil fuels, particularly oil. Not only are fossil fuels to blame for most of our greenhouse gas pollution, they are also finite resources which are likely, one day, to run out.

The fossil fuel of choice is oil, which is also known as ‘black gold’. By the end of the 21st century, some experts estimate oil reserves may reach dangerously low levels, if new sources are not uncovered. Even if they do not, the pollution oil causes is likely to reach unacceptable levels before then. In addition, the economic cost – oil recently touched the $60 per barrel threshold – and political volatility it causes are already high.

Sunny future
Conceptual designs for the Solar Impulse are being drawn up and a model of the plane was recently displayed at the Le Bourget air show. The first test flights are due in 2008 and long-haul test flight will be conducted in 2009. Piccard’s round-the-world bid is slated for 2010.

The single-pilot aircraft’s non-stop flight will take place in three stages: the first flown by Piccard, the second by his co-pilot on the 1999 balloon trip, Brian Jones, and the third by fellow Swiss André Borschberg.

The Impulse may only be a one-seater but they are hoping that this solo flight – like those pioneering ones of the early 20th century – will indicate the future of air travel. “Although in its present design the craft will never be able to carry many passengers we believe that Solar Impulse can spark awareness about the technologies that can make sustainable development possible,” notes Piccard.

And the ESA, a world leader in solar technology, is well-equipped to help make that dream a reality. “The sun is the primary source of energy for our satellites as well as for Piccard's plane,” explains Pierre Brisson, Head of ESA’s Technology Transfer Programme. “With the European space industry we have developed some of the most efficient solar cells, intelligent energy management systems and resourceful storage systems.”

The ESA has also designed solar-powered cars and racecars that run on more environmentally friendly fuels.

Source:  ESA

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