Sky-Sailor Aims For Mars

The solar-powered aircraft, known as Sky-Sailor, recently set a world record for endurance by flying non-stop from Zurich to London. The autonomously controlled aircraft completed the 874.4 kilometer journey in just over 27 hours, maintaining an altitude of between 200 and 400 meters.

The Sky-Sailor was developed by the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, and although researchers acknowledge that it is not the first aircraft of its kind to fly for longer than 24 hours, they point out that it is the first to make the journey without making use of thermal winds or pre-nightfall altitude gain. The 2.6 kilogram aircraft has 216 silicone solar cells positioned on its 3.2 meter wingspan and during peak sunlight these solar cells are able to deliver up to 90 watts of power. The aircraft’s power consumption is 16 watts at level flight and the excess power generated is stored in a battery for use during the night. At night the battery supplies power to the propulsion system and control electronics by discharging slowly until morning, when the solar cells start the energy producing and storage cycle all over again.

The Sky-Sailor project manager, André Noth, confirmed that the ultimate goal of the project is to develop an aircraft capable of flying long-term reconnaissance missions over Mars. The next step toward realizing that goal is the development of a similar aircraft that will fly at an altitude of 13,000 meters. It is believed that flying at this altitude will expose the aircraft to conditions which are more comparable to those that will be encountered during Mars missions.

The Sky-Sailor project to study the feasibility of a solar-powered aircraft for use in the exploration of Mars was established in 2004 under a contract with the European Space Agency. After designing and constructing the aircraft and solar generator, the first prototype was tested using MP2028g autopilot. The success of the test validated the concept, and the team focused on the development of project specific autopilot hardware, as well as the creation of an aerodynamic model of the aircraft and setting up of the ground control station.

In mid-2007 Sky-Sailor took to the skies, flying a distance of 330 kilometers over a period of 10 hours using purely solar energy. Later that year the research and development team presented the Sky-Sailor project to a number of United States West Coast Universities. The tour generated a lot of interest in the project. No doubt the success of the Zurich to London trip will spur the project team on to achieve their goal of using Sky-Sailor in the ongoing exploration of Mars.