Solar-Powered Plane Takes Virtual Test Flight

It took 450 gallons of aviation fuel to power Charles Lindbergh's "Spirit of St. Louis" on its historic 1927 New York-to-Paris flight, but if Swiss balloonist Bertrand Piccard is successful he'll fly the same route — and longer — powered only by the sun.

Piccard is betting $94 million — compared to the $10,500 Lindbergh spent on his single-engine plane — that he not only can span the Atlantic, but will circumnavigate the globe aboard the state-of-the-art "Solar Impulse," a feathery and slow-moving carbon-fiber aircraft powered by four electric-propellor engines connected to an array of solar-rechargeable batteries, according to a report in Agence France-Presse.

Click here to read more about the Solar Impulse.

Still a year before the prototype takes flight, the Solar Impulse team is conducting tests using real-time computer simulation intended to duplicate long-distance flights under real-life weather conditions.

The plan is for Piccard to fly Solar Impulse during daytime hours only, allowing the sun to beat down on its 262-foot long wings — about the length of an Airbus jumbo jet — to recharge its batteries. A ground crew will help guide the craft around or above turbulence and bad weather. The circumnavigation will be broken into five legs, each lasting up to five days.

"We have no idea if the virtual flight will be a success or not," Piccard told AFP. "We're dealing with real conditions, so it may be a failure."

Piccard emphasized that the project would not serve as a model for a solar-powered commercial airliner, but was intended to encourage ideas for pollution-free air travel.

Click here to track Solar Impulse on its virtual test flight.