Solar Power Takes to the Skies With 26-Hour Flight

BY Lauren Knapp  July 8, 2010 at 6:46 PM EDT

An experimental plane powered only by solar energy completed 26 hours of non-stop flying over Switzerland Thursday. The Rundown took a look at the feat and asked for some reactions to the Solar Impulse test flight from around the air and space flight industry.

Footage Courtesy Solar Impulse

John Del Frate is the former project manager for NASA’s Helios Project, which researched and developed solar and electric powered aircraft.

“It demonstrates that solar power is a viable way of achieving flight. My own personal belief is that it’s a good demonstration, but it’s not going to be the future of human transportation. It’s mostly a good way of being able to show that solar energy and properly designed aircraft can do a a wide variety of things. Someone once said that this was the Holy Grail, to fly for long periods of time without having to gas up. This is a big move in that direction and shows that the technology is there.”

Del Frate says Solar Impulse’s achievement this morning could have farther-reaching effects, beyond the aviation industry. “The benefits go far beyond just airplanes. As the state of the art is pushed farther and farther it means we can put solar cells on our houses,” he says. “Solar cells are extremely expensive and it’s things like this that help bring the cost of solar cells down.”

Rundown regular and host of “This Week in Space,” Miles O’Brien said, “the wild blue yonder is just about the hardest place to go green. Pound for pound, jet fuel is just plain hard to beat for oomph. This flight does a lot to dispel long-held myths – and deep seated worries – about what happens to aviation when the fossil fuels run out.”

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), was an institutional partner of Solar Impulse and provided technical support for the project. The organization represents 230 domestic and foreign airlines. “Solar power is unlikely to be the solution for commercial aviation,” said representative Steve Lott, “but after today’s flight, nobody, ever again, can say that carbon-free flight is impossible. The industry’s job is to achieve the same for a plane carrying 400 people.”

Larry Williams, President of The Lindbergh Foundation, was mostly excited for a boost in future aviation innovation. The foundation funds projects similar to the Solar Impulse that challenge conventional wisdom. “These are just the kind of breakthroughs that we’re looking for out there,” he says. “Whether it be this project or alternative fuels or fission – I have a great deal of confidence that we’re going to solve these [environmental] problems.”