The goal to complete the first solar-powered flight around the world is a step closer to the reality. Swiss pilots Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg announced the Solar Impulse 2 aircraft will depart the United Arab Emirates on their historic adventure in late February or early March, making a total of 12 planned stops.
The route includes landings in Myanmar; China; India; Phoenix, Arizona; and New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. At speeds between 50 and 100 kilometers per hour (31-62 mph), Piccard and Borschberg aim to circle the globe flying about 25 days over a total of about five months.
Thanks to advanced solar cells that charge light-weight lithium batteries, an earlier version of the plane was the first solar-powered aircraft of “perpetual endurance” to fly “day and night without a drop of fuel,” according to its website. The batteries can store enough energy to let the plane to fly long distances at night.
Compare the aircraft’s wingspan to a giant Boeing 747-8: Solar Impulse 2 is 12 feet wider – at 236 feet. And it’s very lightweight, just 2½ tons, lighter than a large SUV. Developers say Solar Impulse 2 takes what engineers learned from its predecessor and pushes it to the next level.
In fact, engineers aim to demonstrate the possibilities of solar-powered aviation and to promote clean-energy technology. Soon, the plan’s unique silhouette may be visible across the horizons of Southern Europe, Africa, Asia and North America. Cities on the planned route include the Chinese communities of Chongqing and Nanjing, as well as Ahmedabad and Varanasi in India.
The pilots have already set a few solar aviation records. In 2010, with Borschberg in the cockpit, a previous Solar Impulse became the first manned plane to fly for 24 hours on nothing but solar-powered batteries. The team followed that up in 2012, when the plane flew from Spain to Morocco, making it the first manned sun-powered plane to fly to another continent. And in 2013, Piccard and Borschberg flew an earlier version of Solar Impulse on a mission across the United States.