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Living in the Future: April 22, 2013

This week: Solar-powered plane to cross USA, Orbital’s first rocket test launch a success, and robotic dragonflies take to the sky

The world’s most advanced sun-powered plane, named the Solar Impulse, has completed its first USA test flight in preparation for a cross-country trip. The Solar Impulse is covered in solar panels, allowing it to store enough power to fly day and night without jet fuel. As it is as light as a standard car, it is more vulnerable to high winds than traditional aircraft, and has a lower flying speed – around 40 mph. This new aircraft won’t be replacing traditional planes, but does show the utility of solar-power – and brings back landmark achievements from the heyday of aviation, like crossing continents – and perhaps in the next two years, a flight around the world. For their cross-US tour, the Solar Impulse pilots plan to leave San Francisco, stopping in Phoenix, Dallas, Washington DC, and New York. One other stop will be determined by weather, either Atlanta, Nashville, or St. Louis.

Orbital Science’s first launch test of their NASA-backed Antares rocket was a success, launching a dummy satellite into orbit. Orbital’s Antares rocket is 13 stories tall, and launched from a new commercial spaceport on Wallops Islands, VA. One more test flight is scheduled in June, this time with a real capsule. After that test, it will be ready for the 8 planned cargo runs paid for by NASA. The Antares can carry a heavier payload than commercial spaceflight rival SpaceX’s Dragon, but the Dragon has been in flight for several deliveries already. The dummy payload on this test flight is expected to be pulled back to earth within two weeks, incinerating cleanly in the atmosphere.

Rockets and solar planes rely on relatively recent discoveries of flight – but what about ancient creatures that took to the skies? German manufacturing firm Festo, known for their robotic recreations of biological creatures, has created a robotic paleolithic dragonfly. Dragonflies are marvels of aviation, using relatively little power to hover, accelerate rapidly, stop on a dime, glide, and even fly backwards. This robotic recreation can do all of that, with an onboard power source and microcomputer to control its stability. Even more amazing is that it can be controlled from a standard smartphone interface, and even streams its “vision” through an on-board camera. The stability is due in part to an amazing tail structure that is controlled through simulated muscles. If larger versions of the dragonfly are possible, the science fiction classic of an ornithopter transport craft!