Airbus' solar-powered Zephyr plane just crashed after a 64-day flight

The plane was shy of breaking the record for the longest flight.
Ameya Paleja
Zephyr S.png
The Zephyr S during its flight

Airbus 

Airbus' high-altitude solar-powered uncrewed drone, Zephyr S, which was airborne for over two months, crashed in Arizona on August 19th, Simple Flying has reported.

As a contributor to carbon emissions, the aerial transport industry is keen to switch to greener energy sources. Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and hydrogen fuel cells are plausible solutions that could do the heavy lifting for long-haul transport. The solar-powered flight is yet another option that is being explored.

So far, solar-powered flights have been used to traverse the globe. With its Zephyr range of planes, airplane major Airbus is also using the renewable and most abundant form of energy to power long-duration flights.

Airbus Zephyr

The Zephyr isn't a commercial airplane meant to transport people over long distances. Instead, it is a High Altitude Platform Station (HAPS) that can fly in the stratosphere at around 70,000 feet (21 km), almost twice that of regular jet-engine powered aircraft.

The aircraft has 82 feet (25 m) wingspan but weighs under 165 pounds (75 kg). According to its website, the Zephyr is payload agnostic and can be used to capture imagery or radar or automatic identification systems for military, institutional or commercial uses. At its highest altitude, a single Zephyr can provide the coverage equivalent of 250 cell towers and could be used to improve connectivity in the remotest parts of the world.

Since the aircraft is powered by solar energy alone, it can stay airborne for long durations of time. Previously, the Airbus team has flown the Zephyr continuously for over two weeks on multiple occasions. This time around, the Zephyr was airborne for 64 days when it crashed.

How did Airbus Zephyr crash?

According to Simple Flying, Airbus has been testing iterations of its Zephyr planes in Arizona for many years. The latest iteration of the aircraft, called Zephyr 8, was now close to breaking the record for the longest recorded flight, which is held by a Cessna 172 Skyhawk flight that took place 63 years ago. Called Hacienda flight, the Cessna had remained airborne for 64 days and 22 hours.

Zephyr's flight, although unmanned, could have broken this record too. But something went wrong on the flight on August 19th. Simple Flying tracked the publicly available data about the flight from the ADS-B Exchange, the same database that allows a teenager to track Elon Musk's jet.

Flying under the callsign of ZULU82, the Zephyr 8 was at a relatively lower altitude of 45,000-50,000 feet (13-15 km) on August 19th over the Arizona desert. It had completed an S-shaped maneuver at 50-60 knots when something went wrong, and the aircraft began descending rapidly. At one point, the aircraft's descent speed exceeded 4,544 feet (1.38 km) per minute.

Although the aircraft's wreckage hasn't been spotted yet, the aircraft with record-breaking potential likely met a horrible end.

The team at Airbus is now going through over 1,500 hours of data that the aircraft spent in the stratosphere to plan its next mission.

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