Solar plane lands after two-week flight

A week ago we reported on the Zephyr solar airplane flying nonstop for a week. Yesterday it landed safely after flying nonstop for two weeks, achieving the goal its designers set for it.

The unmanned drone runs on efficient solar cells along its wingspan that charge batteries to keep it running through the night. Sunny skies over Arizona helped boost its power. Engineers hope that it will be the first “eternal plane”, never having to land. Qinetiq, the UK defense firm that designed it and flew it over a US military base, said there was no need for it to land yesterday but that it had proven its worth and is now ready for production.

The US military is interested in using it for military purposes, but Qinetiq is also pointing up the plane’s scientific and commercial possibilities.

The previous endurance record for an unmanned drone was 30 hours, 24 minutes. A manned solar plane, the Solar Impulse, recently flew through the night on a 24-hour flight.

Photo courtesy Qinetiq.

Solar plane flies nonstop for a week

We recently reported on the historic flight of the Solar Impulse, the first solar-powered plane to fly through the night. Now another barrier has been broken. The Zephyr solar plane has flown nonstop for seven days.

Unlike the Solar Impulse, which carried a pilot, the Zephyr is an unmanned drone built by the UK defense firm Qinetiq. Drones have seen extensive service in Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years but are hampered by the need to return for refueling and thus losing sight of targets. Drones that never need to land have an obvious advantage. The civilian potential is obvious too, with researchers already thinking up applications for using them for scientific observation.

This development also marks another step forward for potential solar-powered commercial flight. The Zephyr has solar cells along its 22.5 meter (74 ft) wingspan that drive the propellers and fill batteries that are robust enough to power the plane from sunset to sunrise. Will we one day see solar-powered commercial flights? It may be a long way off, but considering the rapid pace of technological change, it’s unwise to say that anything is impossible.

The Zephyr is still in the air near the US Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona and its support team plans to leave it flying for another week.

The naughty postcard museum

The British have always been famous for their humor, both dry wit and the naughtier brand. One man who combined the two is being celebrated in a new museum that opened in Ryde in the Isle if Wight yesterday.

Donald McGill, Britain’s “king of vulgarity”, illustrated thousands of postcards over an almost sixty-year career. He was best known for simple double-entedres like the one pictured to the right. He also has the distinction of making it into the Guinness Book of World Records for the most sales of an individual postcard–one featuring a bookish man and an attractive young woman sitting under a tree. The guy peers over a volume and asks the girl, “Do you like Kipling?” to which she replies, “I don’t know, you naughty boy, I’ve never kippled!” That sold more than six million copies.

One of his most popular, and most controversial, shows two men admiring an attractive woman as one says to the other, “She’s a nice girl. Doesn’t drink or smoke, and only swears when it slips out!”

In the age of Internet pornography these barely qualify for a PG rating, but in Britain before the Sixties they shocked stogy traditional sensibilities. In 1953 many local jurisdictions raided the shops selling his postcards and burned any they found. The next year at the age of 79, McGill had to face what the museum’s curator called a “show trial” for obscenity. He got off with a fine, but the ruling almost killed the saucy postcard industry.

The Donald McGill Museum website is still under construction but shows some more examples of McGill’s work.

Photo courtesy Donald McGill via Wikimedia Commons.

World’s tallest tent opens in Kazakhstan

When you think of Kazakhstan you probably think of nomads living in tents, but today’s Kazakhstan is rapidly modernizing thanks to an oil boom, so it’s appropriate that the Central Asian nation is now home to the world’s tallest tent.

Technically, it’s the world’s largest “tensile structure”, meaning something held up by poles and cables. A tent, in other words. At 150 meters (492 feet), it’s the also the tallest building in the capital Astana. It encloses more than 100,000 square meters, including a park, cafes, restaurants, 700 parking spots, shopping areas, even an artificial beach.

Called the Khan Shatyr, it’s a unique architectural wonder. One of the challenges of building it was Astana’s rough weather. The Khan Shatyr’s website proclaims, “What do you feel like doing everyday at Astana? It is -30C outside.”

Not the best slogan, but certainly realistic. Astana has the distinction of being the second coldest capital in the world (after Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia), with freezing temperatures six months of the year and winter temperatures that have been measured as low as −40 °C (−40 °F). In the summer it can get up to 35 °C (95 °F). The tent’s skin is made from a special plastic that allows sunlight in while still acting as an insulator. Air vents keep ice from forming on the surfaces and keep the interior at a constant temperature.

Kazakhstan has large oil reserves and the government has been riding a wave of petrodollars that it has used to fund a massive building campaign in the capital. Astana is said to be the biggest construction project in the world, and taking a look at the huge structures in the gallery photos it certainly is a strong contender. The city is the brainchild of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled Kazakhstan since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The Khan Shatyr was opened on President Nazarbayev’s 70th birthday.

The government has been trying to sell Kazakhstan’s capital as a tourist destination, and marvels like this will go a long way towards compensating visitors for the weather. With rugged scenery, Baikonur Cosmodrome (where Yuri Gagarin launched into orbit to become the first man in space), ancient mosques, medieval walled cities, and traditional folk who live in much smaller tents, Kazakhstan is a good choice for the adventure traveler.

Image courtesy Nigel Young/Foster + Partners.


Sailor makes epic 1,152 day voyage without touching land

American sailor Reid Stowe just finished an endurance test that beats pretty much anything on the high seas.

He set off in a sailboat on April 21, 2007 and didn’t touch land again until he returned to port in Manhattan on Tuesday. That’s 1,152 days at sea.

His girlfriend Soanya Ahmad, who had no previous open ocean sailing experience, joined him for the expedition but had to return to land after ten months because she was feeling seasick. That “seasickness” turned out to be morning sickness, and the first thing Stowe got to do once getting home was to greet his 23-month old son Darshen. Ms. Ahmad says she and Stowe agreed that he would continue the trip. Ahmad told the BBC that he would have gone back to sea sooner or later anyway.

That’s one understanding woman, Stowe. You better keep her.

Stowe had to fight hard to make his dream come true. He originally wanted to leave in 1992, but he had trouble finding funding. One of the reasons for the expedition was to simulate the isolation and stress of a Mars mission, which would take a similar amount of time. The original plan called for a crew of six to eight, the number generally agreed upon to make an effective interplanetary team. It seems Reid had trouble convincing others to join him so he set off with only his girlfriend. Reid kept his sanity by practicing yoga and writing a book. Maintaining a ship for that long without refitting took a major effort too.

The Guinness Book of World Records is checking his claim and if verified, he’ll certainly become a new entry. Considering that he was tracked by GPS, things are looking good for Mr. Stowe.