Thursday, June 14, 2012

Solar Plane Aborts Morocco Flight

After completing its historic 2,500-kilometer intercontinental flight to Morocco last week, the Swiss solar-powered plane, Solar Impulse, took off yesterday for Ouarzazate in southern Morocco, but returned to Rabat after experiencing unexpectedly strong headwinds.

The Solar Impulse team announced on its website Wednesday that headwinds and turbulence between Casablanca and Marrakesh was twice as strong as expected and prevented the solar airplane from making progress. The website said the pilot is not in danger, but the flight director ordered him to turn back due to concerns about the unexpected weather conditions.

A running joke within the team is saying André couldn’t handle the desert heat (43°C yesterday afternoon), choosing the cooler and more enjoyable climate of Rabat instead.

The experimental Solar Impulse plane took off from the Moroccan capital, Rabat, at 8 a.m. local time (0700 UTC) Wednesday, with Swiss pilot and businessman Andre Borschberg at the controls. The plane was heading south toward the city of Ouarzazate as part of Morocco's plan to launch the world's biggest solar power plant in the desert region in 2014.

The Switzerland-based Solar Impulse team has been working with the Moroccan government to promote the use of renewable energy technology. Borschberg's team partner and fellow Swiss pilot Bertrand Piccard flew Solar Impulse from the Spanish capital Madrid to Rabat last Wednesday, completing the first intercontinental journey by a manned aircraft operating without liquid fuel.

The single-pilot plane has a 63-meter wingspan covered by 12,000 solar cells, but only weighs about as much as an average family car. The flight over the Moroccan desert is the most difficult the team has attempted because it subjects the plane to hot and turbulent conditions for the first time.

Borschberg said his team took a variety of steps to mitigate the risks of the flight.The steps include preparing multiple flight paths to avoid windy conditions, soaring to a high altitude of 9,000 meters and planning a descent only after sunset. Organizers scheduled a landing time of around 12:30am Thursday (2330 UTC).

“If the situation gets worse, we have some escape routes which would bring us back to Rabat. so all these measures should help us to get away from this difficult environment,” said Borshberg.

“I think it is very much a question of preparation, anticipation and being able to give up if the situation is different from what we would have predicted. So that is the reason why we accept the risk, because the mitigation measures are extremely solid.”

The Swiss pilot said the desert flight also is a good opportunity for the Solar Impulse team to train for a round-the world flight attempt in 2014.

In the past week, Borschberg and Piccard met with Moroccan officials, businesses and students in Rabat to explain how solar technology can be used on the ground to boost the Moroccan economy.

“The Moroccans saw that they have a big asset with the sun,” Borshberg said. “They do not have fossil fuels in their country, so they know that using solar energy is a good way to reduce their dependence on fossil energy and sending money out of the country. I think they are very much willing to invest in this technology.”


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