Solar power for a new frontier

Lockheed’s Vulture design
The Near Space regions are one of the Earth’s last great unexplored frontiers. Its that part of the atmosphere too high for conventional aircraft to reach but too low for satellites to orbit, between 65000 and 325000-350000 feet (20 to 100 km) . High altitude balloons can reach the region but have no control over their mobility. An airplane would be ideal but the air is to thin at these altitude to burn fuel. What is required is an engine that does not require fuel or oxygen.

Now such an aircraft is being built and the man behind it carries one of the most legendary names in exploration: Piccard.

solar impulse

Bertrand Piccard is the grandson of Auguste Piccard and son of Jacques Piccard. In 1999 he and Brian Jones become the first areonauts to circumnavigate the world in a balloon. Now he is planning a new adventure, the first round the world flight in a airplane without fuel. Recently he unveiled the prototype:

A solar-power aircraft theoretically capable of flying at night was unveiled by a Swiss adventurer yesterday as he announced plans to circumnavigate the globe using alternative energy.

Bertrand Piccard said that he would take science and aviation to a new frontier with the €66 million (£56 million) project revealed at a Swiss military airfield.
The Solar Impulse will have its maiden flight this autumn when Mr Piccard, 51, a psychiatrist, will put six years of research into practice. The first stage will involve short flights to test the capacity of the 11,628 monocrystalline silicon cells needed to generate enough energy for the four motors, each generating 10hp, to get the Solar Impulse off the ground.

After that Mr Piccard and André Borschberg, his partner, will need to check that the lithium polymer batteries store sufficient energy to stay airborne at night and that the ultra-light, carbon-fibre honeycomb structure is as resistant as they believe……

Of course the Solar Impulse will be flying well below Near Space but solar aircraft can go much higher. In fact NASA has shown leadership here with Pathfinder and Helios but more on NASA’s efforts in a future article.

Perhaps the most astonishing Near Space project comes from DARPA. The DOD agency Vulture program will be a high altitude aircraft capable of staying aloft for five years:

The objective of DARPA’s Vulture program is to develop a fixed-wing aircraft with pseudo-satellite capability that can sustain uninterrupted flight for over five years at 60,000-90,000 feet with a 1,000lb (450kg) payload, 5kW of onboard power and perform intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and communication missions while remaining in the required mission airspace 99 percent of the time.

The initial 12-month analytical phase of the program will see the exploration of various vehicle configurations, concluding with a concept design review of sub-scale and full-scale demonstration vehicles. Key technologies to be investigated include innovative in-flight energy collection and reliable propulsion systems using photovoltaic cells and high specific energy fuel cells….

Aurora’s Odysseus concept for DARPA’s Vulture


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