After Solar Impulse: The Next Solar Adventure?

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Solar Impulse 2 proved that solar energy can be exciting on many levels.

Tuesday, July 26th, the world’s first entirely solar powered aircraft touched down in Abu Dhabi, completing an epic 505 day odyssey around the globe. Piloted by two Swiss adventurers, Andre Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard, Solar Impulse 2 proved that solar photovoltaic generation of electricity can not only power our homes, but also power our dreams.

Of course, solar has played a part in many of the epic voyages of the last half-century. Ever since the United States launched Vanguard I on March 17, 1958, solar panels have been a part of space travel. In July of 1969, Apollo 11 delivered the first solar panels to the moon. Solar has powered expeditions on Mt. Everest and experimental car races across South Africa and the Australian outback.

Solar Impulse 2 was not the first around the world flight to rely on solar power, however. The Breitling Orbiter 3 was the first hot-air balloon to circumnavigate the globe, piloted by Brian Jones and… none other than Bertrand Piccard. Piccard’s first successful trip around the globe in 1999 used solar panels suspended below the gondola to power critical systems.

Piccard and Borschberg piloted Solar Impulse 1 in impressive solar-powered flights from Switzerland to Spain and then Morocco in 2012, then a multi-stage flight across the US in 2013, before embarking on the Solar Impulse 2 adventure.

In a time when the world seems smaller and more homogeneous due to digital communications, great human adventures– peaceful voyages of scientific discovery, technical prowess and human endurance– get less and less attention. Solar Impulse 2 held its own in the Twitterverse, with live streaming launches and landings, attractive and articulate jumpsuit-clad video-hosts and endless shots of the technological wonder soaring over countless exotic locations and cultural landmarks. One is still left asking oneself about the actual significance of the flight beyond social media and publicity for green tech, and if there is a technological next step beyond Solar Impulse 2.


According to Government Technology; “The strategic breakthrough that this technology represents is undeniable. Clean, renewable energy in the form of sunshine that can’t be metered has provided fuel for a flight around the world for the first time in human history. This is an innovation in energy that has implications going forward for every sector of modern industrial society. It isn’t too much of an exaggeration to say that Solar Impulse has ushered in a new era.”

It was no coincidence that The United Arab Emirates (UAE) was the taking off and landing point for the journey. Laura El-Katiri, an Abu Dhabi-based consultant and a research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies wrote an article for the UAE news site The National that states; “The UAE’s target is to increase the contribution of clean energy – renewable energy and nuclear power – from less than 1 per cent in 2014 to 24 per cent of the country’s energy mix by 2024. This commitment will have great job-creating potential for young Emiratis. It is also an indication of the UAE’s increasing emphasis on more climate-friendly development planning, demonstrating that economic growth in the region can be “green”.

But what of Piccard, Borschberg and other up and coming solar adventurers? For the Solar Impulse team, they plan to downsize.  “We will produce a solar drone based on the experience we have,” Borschberg told WIRED in a phone call following the plane’s landing. “We hope to have something of our own flying in the stratosphere in less than three years.”The planned drone will be unmanned – the pilot jokes he is putting himself out of a job – and will have a wingspan of approximately 40 to 50 metres.

As the article is being posted, the American Solar Challenge, a 1,975-mile rally race for solar cars built and designed by university teams around the world, is approaching the end of it’s course crossing the central United States. Meanwhile, Britain’s national solar car team has launched a £500,000 ($666,752) sponsorship drive to build a car to take part in next year’s World Solar Challenge, a race which sees solar-powered vehicles drive from Darwin, northern Australia, to Adelaide on the south coast. A DIY unmanned solar boat named Seacharger has just completed a voyage from California to Hawaii. These may not be as epic as Solar Impulse 2, but taken as a whole, it shows that solar remains the platform of choice for 21st century adventure.


While PV powers earthly adventures, JAXA, The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, recently unveiled a huge prototype solar sail designed to power a JAXA probe as it explores asteroids that circle the sun on roughly the same orbit as Jupiter. The sail measures 2,500 sq. meters and is made up of thousands of ultraslim solar panels.

One has to ask; as Elon Musk looks to pool the resources of Tesla Motors and SolarCity, how will his company SpaceX utilize solar in propelling the first mission to Mars?

 

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