Solar Panels in the Air and Outer Space
Solar panels have been used in outer space for several decades. They are essential components of most satellites, human-crewed spacecraft, and space probes, as they provide power for communication and navigation systems as well as scientific instruments.
In 1958, the Vanguard I satellite was the first spacecraft to use a small solar panel for radio power; the Vanguard II, Explorer III, and Sputnik-3 were also launched later this same year, and they all included solar technology in some capacity. Since 2000, the International Space Station has been powered by solar panels, and — in more recent years — three of the Mars rovers (Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity) have also used solar panels to generate energy for their instruments and mobility system.
In the early 1970s, several individuals created and flew solar-powered model airplanes, starting with the Sunrise I, designed by R.J. Boucher in 1974. In 1979, Larry Mauro flew solo in the Solar Riser, a solar-powered hang glider. The first manned solar-powered airplane flight happened on July 7, 1981. Paul MacCready built the plane, Stephen Ptacek piloted it, and it flew across the English Channel from France to the UK.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, though, they were all UAV (uncrewed aerial vehicle) airplanes. By the end of the 2000s, 94 solar-powered airplanes had been built, and aviation experts continue to work toward making fully solar-powered and manned flights a significant part of the history of solar energy.