A Day at the (Solar) Races

There are only 18 hours left before the World Solar Challenge begins in Darwin, Australia. The teams participating in this epic engineering competition will set out at 8 a.m. tomorrow for the city of Adelaide 3000 kilometers away, and the drivers are about to be subjected to some brutal heat inside their solar cars.

It can get as hot as 40 degrees Celsius inside the cars, so the drivers will face a formidable challenge just staying hydrated and comfortable. To deal with the centimeters of accumulated sweat contributed by its drivers, for example, Nunaâ''s designers (from the University of Delft, in The Netherlands) added a special sweat channel to drain out as it accumulates. A thoughtful touch, indeed, but perhaps a sign that these vehicles arenâ''t ready for mass production.

As this correspondent left the race track this morning, it appeared likely that the Aurora Vehicle Association, from Melbourne, had snagged pole position, with a qualifying lap time one second faster than Nunaâ''s. The University of Michigan team came in twenty seconds behind the two, but thereâ''s a consensus that the Midwesterners are the ones to watch this year. Check out the nifty concentrator system embedded in the lid of their car. This might be the first time that a mirror concentrator design has been built into a solar car, and weâ''re excited to see how it fares.

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Auroraâ''s team leaders donâ''t expect theyâ''ll winâ''theyâ''ve had a singularly rough yearâ''but chances are good that theyâ''ll finish in the top 10. This storied team has been participating in the race since the very beginning. They last won the competition in 1999 and came in second two years ago, the last time the race was held. But some 15 months ago the solar car went up in flames while it was on tour in Spain, and it was so completely demolished that the team never determined the cause of the fire.

Thatâ''s quite a blow for any team, and Aurora hasnâ''t been blessed with as much sponsorship as some other teams have. So with the loss of the car, the engineers had no components they could recycle in a new entry. Despite cutting a few corners to build a cheaper carâ''such as choosing silicon solar cells, rather than top-of-the-line gallium arsenide onesâ''theyâ''ve put together whatâ''s turned out to be a pretty sharp vehicle.

Here are some more photos from the track, which sort of resembled a UFO convention. It's been an exhausting journey for everyone here.

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This is the German vehicle--a unique form that the designers expect to be extremely aerodynamic. Instead of a lid that fully detaches, as most cars here have, this one opens and closes on hinges. Here it is with the lid closed, looking rather fish-like.

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And some more cars...

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The next reports will all come from straight from the Australian outback!

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