Yesterday marks a small but significant moment in history: Test pilot Markus Scherdel flew the Solar Impulse aircraft for the first time. It's amazing because Solar Impulse is entirely solar-powered, and took to the sky through simple light from the sun.
The flight was nothing more than a short 350-meter hop a meter off the ground, but with the four props spinning under electric motor power, it's an amazing triumph that marks the beginning of the end of 10 years of work. Solar impulse HB-SIA was, for this short flight, not garnering its energy from the sun--the solar cells are going to be connected up for the next series of trials--but the significance is undiminished, since now the research team knows its vehicle is air-worthy, all it needs is to perfect the solar charging system.
The flight, despite its similarity to the Wright brother's first short hop, is unlikely to be as transformational. Solar Impulse will, after an extensive flight- and technology-testing phase take part in an amazing feat--flying around the world. It'll start with solar-charging, then day and night transition tests, a 36-hour duration test next summer and ultimately project leader and pilot Bertrand Piccard will circumnavigate the globe. But it's all to prove a point--that solar power could make a difference in the aviation industry, rather than to turn us all into solar-plane fliers.