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The Solar Impulse HB-SIA left on an historic solar powered airplane flight, piloted by adventurer and Psychiatrist Bertrand Picard, on Friday from Moffett Field in Silicon Valley. The flight will take them first to Phoenix and from there across the country to New York City, making it the first solar powered airplane to fly across the U.S.

The Solar Impulse aircraft has the wingspan of a jetliner (208 feet), the weight of a regular car (3,500 lbs), a battery pack the same size as in the Tesla Model S (85 kilowatt-hours), and electric motors the power of a low end motorcycle (4x 10 horsepower, for 40 horsepower). Thanks to a 45 kilowatt (peak) solar array on the top skin of the wings, the HB-SIA generates enough electricity it can start in the morning with an empty battery pack, fly all day on solar power, and end the day with a battery pack full enough to fly all night.

It is the brainchild of Bertrand Picard, the adventurer and Psychiatrist who flew a balloon, the Breitling Orbiter, around the world in 1999. After that trip he developed the idea of flying on renewable energy, only to be rejected by airplane manufacturers saying “that’s impossible.” We can say that, not only is it possible, it is flying on its way to Phoenix.

Along the way a team of over 100 people formed around the project, including a partnership between Picard and Andre Borschberg who co-founded the project and will also pilot the Solar Impulse on some legs of the trip.

The journey is a sort of barnstorming tour of the U.S. In theory the Solar Impulse could be flown across the country in one continuous flight lasting several days, if it weren’t for the human pilot. The solar array on the HB-SIA is large enough to not only power the airplane during the day, but store enough energy for flight at night. It was designed for energy efficiency rather than speed, and flies at an airspeed of 40 miles/hr, with a take-off speed of 27 miles/hr.


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