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Get Ready For A Solar-Power Plane’s Maiden Flight Across The U.S.

Come May 1, a skinny plane with expansive, solar cell-covered wings plans to take it maiden flight in the United States, a journey that aims to inspire people to support green tech and a can-do spirit.

The two founders and supporters of the Swiss project, called Solar Impulse, discussed their plan for the flight at NASA’s Moffett Field in Silicon Valley on Thursday. They unveiled the plane, also called Solar Impulse, that already has made history in flights around Europe and North Africa.

Solar Impulse will fly from Moffett to New York, with four stops along the way. It will land in Phoenix, Dallas and Washington, D.C. before its final stop in New York City. It also plans to stop either in Atlanta, Nashville or St. Louis.
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With nearly 12,000 solar cells and four lithium-polymer batteries, Solar Impulse was able to complete a journey that lasted 26 hours in 2010. Showing that the plane could fly overnight was critical to demonstrate its ability to take on longer and more ambitous trips. In fact, the Solar Impulse team is building a larger plane for an around-the-world flight planned for 2015.

“It’s not the easiest way to fly, but it’s the most fabulous way to fly,” said co-founder Bertrand Piccard at a press conference . Piccard made a name for himself when he co-piloted a balloon that traveled non-stop around the world in 1999.

Engineering Solar Impulse requires some special considerations. Weight is an important consideration because it only has limited fuel — electricity produced by SunPower’s solar cells that can generate up to 45 kilowatts of power — and that fuel supply needs to be carefully managed. The single-person plane weighs 3,527 pounds and has a wingspan of 208 feet. It’s got four electric engines of 10-horsepower each and flies, on average, 43 miles per hour.

To avoid turbulence, Solar Impulse typically takes off early in the morning and land at night, said André Borschberg, CEO of Solar Impulse. Both Borschberg and Piccard can pilot the plane.

The project relies on the technical and financial support of many corporate sponsors, who include chemical company Solvay, Omega, Deutsche Bank and Schindler, an engineering firm.


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