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Contact: Erica Rolfe

ESA assists sun-powered aircraft

Leading edge technology
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

In 1999 Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard made the first non-stop balloon flight around the world. Now, with the help of ESA, he is aiming for another historic flight, this time in a plane powered by sunlight.

Every day, jet aircraft carry millions of people around the world. Passenger numbers are growing rapidly. Unfortunately, aircraft also pollute the atmosphere. But what if engineers could design a clean aeroplane powered only by sunlight? Piccard’s team intends to show that this dream can become a reality, by building an ultra-light aircraft named Solar Impulse. Shaped like a glider, the two tonne plane will harvest energy from silicon solar cells covering the upper surface of its 80 metre wide wings.

Flying at night
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For about 8 hours every day, these cells will capture enough sunlight to power the plane and charge its batteries so that it can fly throughout the night. The two engines are expected to give a top speed of 100 km/h.

In its present design the aircraft will never be able to carry many passengers. On its round-the-world flight, planned for 2010, three men will take turns to fly the single-pilot Solar Impulse. However, it is hoped that the revolutionary plane will spark awareness of new technologies and renewable energy.

"Solar Impulse will promote the idea of a new aviation era using cleaner planes powered by the almost infinite energy of the Sun," said Piccard.

ESA's Technology Transfer Programme is supporting Piccard’s team by providing advanced technologies – such as solar cells – and expert advice.