An experimental solar-powered plane whose makers hope to one day circle the globe using only energy collected from the sun took off for its first 24-hour test flight Wednesday.
The plane with its 262.5-foot (80—meter) wingspan left Payerne airfield in Switzerland shortly before 7 a.m. (0500 GMT; 1 a.m. EDT) after an equipment problem that delayed a previous attempt was solved, the Solar Impulse team said.
Pilot Andre Borschberg will take the prototype to an altitude of 27,900 feet (8,500 meters) by Wednesday evening, when a decision will be made whether to fly the plane through the night using solar power stored in its batteries.
“The goal of the project is to have a solar-powered plane flying day and night without fuel,” said team co—founder Bertrand Piccard, adding that this test flight “the third major step after its first ‘flea hop’ and an extended flight earlier this year” will demonstrate whether the ultimate goal is feasible- to fly the plane around the world.
“This flight is crucial for the credibility of the project,” said Piccard, a record—breaking balloonist whose father and grandfather also accomplished pioneering airborne and submarine feats.
The team had hoped to make their 24—hour test flight last week when days in the northern hemisphere were even longer, allowing the plane’s 12,000 solar cells to collect even more energy before attempting to coast through the night.
But there was a problem with a key piece of communications equipment, forcing the team to keep the plane on the ground while modifications were made. Every aspect of the aircraft is monitored by engineers on the ground, with much of it fed onto the team’s website and Twitter page.
Mr. Borscherg, the plane’s sole pilot, will decide by 8 p.m. (1800 GMT; 2 p.m. EDT) whether to continue through the night. If he goes ahead, the plane will slowly descend to 4,920 feet (1,500 meters) before midnight, where Mr. Borschberg will stay until attempting a dawn landing.
Piccard, who achieved the first nonstop circumnavigation of the globe in a balloon, the Breitling Orbiter III, in 1999, said that, if successful, the next step will be an Atlantic crossing. That will be done in a second, lighter prototype, involving new challenges and dangers, he said.