SolarStratos takes stratospheric step toward solar-powered flight

A prototype solar-electric aircraft has completed its maiden flight, an event that represents a milestone toward the first solar stratospheric flight in 2018.

SolarStratos undertook its inaugural flight over Payerne in Switzerland on May 5, 2017 and flew for seven minutes at an altitude of 300m. Future flights and research experiments are planned at an altitude of up to 20km.

SolarStratos is a SolarXplorers group venture that was instigated by SolarStratos pilot Raphael Domjan. SolarStratos is also the customer and partner of Elektra Solar, a German Aerospace Center (DLR) spin-off that designed and built the Elektra-2 aircraft.

“We want to demonstrate that with current technology, it is possible to go beyond what fossil fuels offer,” said Domjan. “Electric and solar vehicles are among the major challenges of the 21st century. Our plane, which can fly at 25,000m, opens a window to electric and solar-powered high-altitude aviation – something that has never before been attempted. Only by flying can we work out the plane’s limits and [the] short flight was an important first step on this pathway.”

According to SolarStratos’ website, the current project could present opportunities for commercial electric or solar aviation for private passengers and scientists. A long-term goal of Domjan and his team is to exploit opportunities in the second major layer of Earth's atmosphere with autonomous systems.

DLR said that Elektra-2 is the world's first solar-electric aircraft designed to take a payload of up to 100kg to an altitude of about 20km in autonomous operation. The aircraft weighs 420kg, making it possible to test technologies for broadband internet supply and remote sensing for stratospheric use directly at this altitude.