Spacesuit needed to fly high altitude solar plane

Solar powered flight has been in the news ever since the sun powered Solar Impulse 2, piloted by Swiss adventurer Bertrand Picard and his associate Andre Borschberg, flew around the world in 2015 to 16. This flight, relying solely on wing mounted solar panels, took over a year to complete before finally landing in Abu Dhabi in July, 2016. Equipped with 4 engines and 17,000 solar cells on its 72 meter wingspan, Solar Impulse 2 was based on an earlier model, Solar Impulse, that made history in June, 2012, when it flew from Switzerland to Casa Blanca Morocco.

Both Solar Impulse flights flew at a relatively low altitude, however; due to the pilot’s cabin being unpressurized. A new solar powered test plane, SolarStratos just completed a successful test flight in Switzerland and is eventually hoped to fly as high as 25,000 meters. Compared to the Solar Impulse models, which weighed 2.3 tons, the much smaller SolarStratos weighs just 450 kg (992 lbs) and is only 8.5 meters in length. The plane is also unpressurized, but the pilot will make up for this during a high altitude flight by wearing a pressurized spacesuit.

Flying to such high altitudes in the Earth’s stratosphere presents a new set of challenges, however. Weather conditions and temperatures as low as -70 degrees Celsius (-94 degrees Fahrenheit) are totally different than those experienced by the flights of Solar Impulse 1 and 2.

This feat will pose huge technical and human challenges says Swiss adventurer Raphael Domjan, who is sponsoring the project. The initial test flight, by Swiss pilot Damian Hischier, only few to an altitude of 300 meters (1,000 ft) and lasted just 7 minutes.

The SolarStratos has a way to go before being able to reach altitudes of over 10,000 meters, however. The idea of doing this is to “harness the sun’s treasure”. The flight aims to do something that up to now has only been possible using technology powered by fossil fuels. We can only wish them well.

Read more about solar powered flight:
Solar powered plane (finally) completes round the world flight
Would You Fly by the Sun and Solar Impulse?
Morocco to Welcome Solar Impulse pilots tonight

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