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Runnin' on Empty: Solar Plane to Fly Across the United States With No Fuel

This summer, the pioneering Solar Impulse plane will fly across the entire continental United States without fuel.

How soon can the airline industry break free of polluting fossil fuels? The future might be a little closer than you'd think. Three years ago, engineers successfully flew the ultra-lightweight Solar Impulse plane from day to night without fuel. This summer, they'll fly across the entire United States.

The plane is gigantic; the wingspan is equal to an Airbus 340, at over 200 feet wide. Unlike a standard jet, however, the Solar Impulse weighs less than a typical car. Every aspect of the plane, from the carbon fiber components to the flight instrumentation, has been designed to save energy. The airplane is also covered with 200 square meters of solar panels. Because of the ultra-efficient design of the plane, it can be powered by the solar panels alone.

It's far from being ready to replace commercial jets, but the designers of the Solar Impulse hope that it can demonstrate how far science can push back the limits of what was once considered impossible. On their website, they write about how the major scientific adventures of the last century, from exploring the poles to the first steps on the moon, were also considered impossible. Now, they say, scientists need the same spirit of adventure; it's only the nature of the challenges that has changed. From the Solar Impulse site:

Major challenges await humanity. They will open new horizons for science, but their objectives will be less to conquer unknown territories than to preserve the planet from today's threats, in order to sustain and improve our quality of life.
The next adventures will therefore be humanitarian and medical - combating extreme poverty and containing new epidemics, political - improving our governance of the planet, spiritual - rediscovering profound and soundly-based values, and of course technological - providing durable answers to the threats menacing our environment.
Images courtesy of Solar Impulse\n

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