The world's largest solar-powered drone, the Qimingxing-50, has completed its first test flight. The drone was not even in the air for an hour, but it is built to fly "forever". This is possible because the drone is not powered by batteries or fuel, but by solar energy. Advances in solar panels make it possible to cover a large area of wings with lightweight solar cells.
Like all similar models, the Qimingxing-50 – translated as Morgenstern-50 – is very light. It is unthinkable to use such a solar glider as a cargo or passenger aircraft. The drone is to climb to an altitude of 20,000 meters, where it flies far above the clouds. In the stratosphere, these lightweight aircraft are protected from storms and bad weather.
The main advantage, however, is that these drones do not require a rocket launch. That pushes the costs down enormously, you don't have to rely on the limited capacities of the launch slots, and even countries without a space program can use these "pseudo-satellites" on their own.
Built by Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), Morgenstern-50 is the bigger brother of a predecessor. The new model has a wingspan of 50 meters, the previous one reached 28. The model has a double fuselage and uses six propellers to propel itself. After the maiden flight of 26 minutes, further tests are expected, ultimately the morning star should remain in the air for several months.
Airbus is also working on a similar program. At 25 meters, the wingspan of the Zephyr S is only half that of the Morgenstern-50. Zephyr S was set to break the record for longest flight, but unfortunately it crashed after 64 days.