Ten years ago, when Bertrand Piccard started a project in Switzerland to fly an airplane powered only by sunlight, aerospace companies he spoke to thought he was nuts. That was a good thing, he said, because it told him that he had come up with a worthy challenge that could make a big impact on people’s lives.
The project, called Solar Impulse, went on to set world records and spark imagination for a future when air travel could leave low-carbon footprint. Now that plane, embedded with solar cells from SunPower, will make its first flight in the United States this year. The plan calls for running test flights in April and taking off in northern California — likely from NASA’s Moffett Field — in May.
When the plane preps for its flight east to Washington, D.C. and then New York, it will be an awesome sight to behold. The aircraft’s designs aimed to create ample surface area to accommodate solar cells and to minimize its weight and energy needs. The single-seat plane has long wings: at 63.40 meters (208 feet), about the wingspan of an Airbus A340. Yet at 1,600 kilogram (3,527 pounds), it has the heft of a sedan.