If you ever wanted to play astronaut but weren’t quite ready to dedicate yourself to NASA training, you might soon be in luck. On Wednesday, the 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 break the stratosphere and get passengers to the stars.
The aircraft, which has a wingspan of 81.3 feet and weighs 992 pounds, leaves approximately the same carbon footprint as an electric car, the company claims. The wings of the plane are covered by 72-square feet of solar panels, which provide energy to its 32-KW electric engine and 20 kWh lithium-ion battery.
The first mission, which will take place in 2018, will take two hours to ascend to the stratosphere and will stay there for [15 minutes before descending. The company tells Inverse 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.
Typically, commercial planes tend to fly in the lower region of the stratosphere, staying at altitudes between 6 and 12 miles. The SolarStratos plane reaches an altitude of 15 miles above Earth. As a comparison, the International Space Station is 220 miles above Earth.
Traditional aircraft require large, environmentally dangerous amounts of helium or gas in order to traverse the distance to the stratosphere.
“This opens the door to the possibility of electric and solar commercial aviation, close to space,” says project lead Raphael Domjan. Domjan previously created the first solar-powered boat to completely circumnavigate the globe in 2012.
In order to keep the aircraft lightweight, instead of a pressurized cabin, pilots will be required to wear pressurized space suits to deal with the -70 degrees Fahrenheit.
The two-seater to space is on the luxury end of solar flight. But SolarStratos is just one of a number of companies trying to make commercial solar flight the norm in the next decade.
Solar Impulse, a project based in Switzerland, completed the first entirely solar-powered circumnavigation of the globe in July with its Solar Impulse 2 (Si2) aircraft. The company is now pushing for innovations that will drive down the costs of solar technology and make solar flights a commercial reality in the near future.
“In nine years and eight months, you’ll have 50 people traveling short-haul on electric planes,” co-founder Bertrand Piccard recently told members of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) airlines association. “Why nine years and eight months? Because since four months I’ve been saying it will be ten years. It will happen.”
And a huge potential of solar energy in travel isn’t limited to commercial use. NASA is also developing a solar-powered ion engine to aid its mission to explore Mars.