December 16th, 2016 by Steve Hanley
Originally published on Gas2
Psst! Got $10 million burning a hole in your pocket and an itch for space travel? Are you a firm believer in climate change who wants to limit your carbon footprint while you pursue you dreams? If your answers to those questions are yes, SolarStratos, a Swiss start-up, may have just the answer for you wanderlust — an airplane that uses solar power to lift people to the edge of space and return them gently to earth.
Space tourism is expected to become big business in the future. Spurred on by Elon Musk’s dream of establishing a colony on Mars within the next decade and SpaceX’s innovative reusuable rockets. experts predict the cost of space travel will fall precipitously in coming years. Musk thinks eventually a seat on a Mars bound transport could cost as little as $100,000.
Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg told Bloomberg earlier this year he sees the space tourism industry “blossoming over the next couple of decades into a viable commercial market. He thinks the International Space Station could be joined in low earth orbit by dozens of hotels and companies pursuing micro-gravity manufacturing and research. “I think it’s a fascinating area for us,” he said.
But you might not have to wait that long. Last week, Swiss company SolarStratos revealed its “solar plane,” a 28 foot-long aircraft that will be the first manned aircraft entirely powered by solar energy to rise above the stratosphere and bring passengers close to the stars. The solar power airplane has a wingspan of 81.3 feet and weighs 992 pounds.
Its wings are covered by 72 square feet of solar panels which provide energy to its 32 kilowatt electric engine and 20 kWh lithium ion battery. SolarStratos claims the airplane has approximately the same carbon footprint as an electric car . To reduce total weight of the aircraft, the cockpit will not be heated or pressurized. Those on board will wear pressurized space suits to protect them from the minus 70 degree F temperatures outside.
It will take two hours to ascend to the edge of space some 15 miles above the earth. SolarStratos will stay there for 15 minutes before beginning a 3 hour descent back to earth. The company says it expects to launch its first flights for commercial passengers in two to three years, but at a pretty steep price. Each mission will cost $10 million. “This opens the door to the possibility of electric and solar commercial aviation, close to space,” says project lead Raphael Domjan, who designed and built the first solar powered boat to circumnavigate the globe four years ago.
Bertrand Piccard, one of the two pilots who recently circumnavigated the earth in Solar Impulse II, a solar powered aircraft, told members of the International Air Transport Association recently, “In nine years and eight months, you’ll have 50 people traveling short haul on electric planes. Then he asked, “Why nine years and eight months? Because for the past four months I’ve been saying it will be within ten years. It will happen.”
Piccard may be too pessimistic in his predictions. NASA is pursuing research into passenger airplanes powered by electric motors and independent inventors are imagining ways to make larger battery powered airplanes. The age of electric transportation is clearly upon us, even if some don’t realize it yet.