First Solar-Powered Free Fall – Electric Solar Airplane Updates

  • A new, all-solar electric airplane is saving kerosene over Switzerland.
  • Airplanes burn primarily kerosene, and the industry accounts for 2 percent of global emissions.
  • The SolarStratos team wants to fly its solar plane all the way to the stratosphere.

    A team of Swiss aeronauts has flown an all-solar airplane to 5,000 feet before making a freefall jump. The aeronauts say it’s the first jump of its kind from a solar craft, and just one step on their journey to reach the Karman line in a solar-powered vehicle.

    The SolarStratos team bills itself as flying to the “edge of space,” which means into the stratosphere. The Karman line, named for legendary astronautical engineer Theodore von Karman, marks the end of Earth’s atmosphere and the true beginning of space in a way that supports legal findings, for example. As the atmosphere thins and disappears, it’s not a rigid and uniform shell. It’s affected by forces and can’t be pinned down with exactitude from minute to minute.

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    What SolarStratos wants to do is explore the stratosphere, hence the name. The SolarStratos members are not the first or only ones to do it, and they say sending their fixed-wing aircraft into the stratosphere will allow them to take measurements and move atmospheric science forward. Their plane is incredible, with a wingspan nearly three times its length to accommodate wings encrusted with solar panels.

    solarstratos plane


    In this initial flight, the SolarStratos team flew its signature airplane to 5,000 feet, which is on the low end of the standard range for skydiving. At the peak, founder and pilot Raphaël Domjan jumped out with a parachute. SolarStratos says a big part of its mission is to show how green planes can do the same things as traditional planes, including carrying skydivers. In fact, SolarStratos says its goal is to do things traditional airplanes simply can’t.

    TechXplore repeats SolarStratos’s figure that airplanes that run on kerosene make up about 2 percent of global emissions. In aviation, kerosene has major advantages: it burns hotter, costs far less, has a lower freezing point, and stays low viscosity. Replacing it with solar represents a major undertaking.

    The SolarStratos plane has previously explored as high as 26,000 feet, which is over halfway to the bottom of the stratosphere. The aircraft isn’t insulated or temperature-controlled like a traditional passenger plane is, so the pilot requires a personal oxygen system and what amounts to a spacesuit—even by 16,000 feet, the air temperature is dangerously low and just keeps falling. (At a high enough altitude, it’s also more appropriate to just say ambient or atmospheric temperature.)

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    Domjan’s jump represents several milestones for SolarStratos. Because there have been so few efforts to make fully solar-powered fixed-wing flight, this was the first jump from an electric plane and the first time an entire freefall was powered by solar and entirely carbon neutral.

    A Swiss official on hand is quoted in SolarStratos’ statement about the flight: “Historically, Switzerland was built by pioneers who took risks. This project reflects the power of dreams, turned into a concrete project for our country.”

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