Solar-powered plane preps for world trip

The solar-powered Solar Impulse 2 has made its first successful test flight. Photo © Solar Impulse / Revillard / Rezo.ch
The solar-powered Solar Impulse 2 has made its first successful test flight. Photo © Solar Impulse / Revillard / Rezo.ch

A solar-powered plane that could become the first to fly around the world using just the power of the sun has successfully completed its first test flight.

The Solar Impulse 2 is the brainchild of Swiss adventurers Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg. Made of carbon fibre, it seats one person and has a wingspan of 72 metres yet weighs just 2300 kilograms, about the same as a large car.

It runs on four electric motors, powered by 17,000 solar cells and lithium batteries that recharge during the day and make it possible to fly at night.

Bertrand Piccard (left) and André Borschberg (right) congratulate test pilot Markus Scherdel. Photo © Solar Impulse / Revillard / Rezo.ch
Bertrand Piccard (left) and André Borschberg (right) congratulate test pilot Markus Scherdel. Photo © Solar Impulse / Revillard / Rezo.ch

On June 2, the Solar Impulse 2 made its first flight, climbing to 1670 metres from an airfield in Switzerland and staying in the air for over two hours.

Test and training flights will continue ahead of an attempt at the record-setting around-the-world flight, scheduled to take place in March 2015.

"The route has not been fully defined yet," a spokesperson said via email. "We know that we will fly in order over the Arabian Sea, India, Myanmar, China, the Pacific Ocean, the United States, the Atlantic Ocean, and southern Europe or North Africa, before closing the loop by returning to the point of departure."

In 1999, Piccard took part in the world's first non-stop around-the-world hot air balloon flight. The balloon burned through 3.7 tonnes of liquid propane in nearly 20 days, with just 40 kilograms left when it landed.

"In a situation like this one, dependency to fuel, to fossil energy, is not a theory; it's a feeling in your gut," he said, recalling the experience in an online press video.

"On that day, I made a promise that the next time I would fly around the world, it would be with no fuel."

Solar aviation started in the 1970s. An early manned flight - in a glider boosted by an electric motor and a helicopter battery - took place in California in 1979. Two years later, a solar-powered plane named Solar Challenger flew from Paris to London.

The Solar Impulse project is backed by investors Solvay, Omega, Schindler, ABB, Google, Altran, Bayer MaterialScience, Swiss Re Corporate Solutions and Swisscom.

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