Considering the massive carbon emissions that come from burning jet fuel, air travel is in serious need of a green makeover. To that end, the folks over at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland, have been working on a solar-powered plane since 2003. Now, after six years of testing, they have finally managed to get the plane off the ground.

The flight wouldn’t exactly impress Lindbergh, as the plane only lifted a yard off the ground for a 1,148 foot trip. In fact, due to the short nature of the flight, the engineers nicknamed the test “the flea hop”. However, it is the first takeoff by a solar-powered plane carrying a pilot ever in history, and the plane behaved just as engineers predicted in their models.

The plane carries only one person, but has a wingspan of almost 200 feet. And despite that long wing length, the whole craft only weighs 3,527 pounds.

This test is the first in a serious of flights building up to a 2011 trans-Atlantic flight. Eventually, the engineers hope to circumnavigate the globe over the course of 25 days. Not quite Chuck Yaeger speed there, but not bad, considering the vehicle’s powered entirely by the sun.

New Scientist


Solar Impulse

The Solar Impulse is the prototype of a fuel-free aircraft that is designed to circle the globe on sunlight alone.

The Creators

The heads of the Swiss project: Andre Borschberg (a former military pilot), right, and Bertrand Piccard (famous for his round-the-world hot-air balloon trip in 1999).

Solar Cells

For its fuel substitute, the plane relies on the almost 12,000 solar cells on its wings and tail to convert solar energy to electricity.

In Flight

How will the aircraft manage to survive the sunless nighttime? During the day, the aircraft will soak up sun rays and gradually climb to a height of 9 km, and then at night, it will coast on what’s left of the solar energy, slowly descending to a height of 1.5 km.

Giant Bird

The prototype has a wingspan of 210 feet and weighs 3,500 pounds (roughly the same as a car).

Virtual Flight

The aircraft is slated for a test run later this year. This photo was taken during its 2008 virtual flight.

The Unveiling

June 26, 2009: the public gets to see the plane

Up Close

The crowd even gets to touch it