This Solar-Powered Plane is Currently Circumnavigating the World

With 17,000 solar cells in its wing and tail, the aircraft relies solely on sunshine to keep its motors running

Solar Impulse founder André Borschberg and co-founder Bertrand Piccard devised a plan to trade off piloting duties in the single-seater. © Solar Impulse /
Solar Impulse / Revillard / Rezno.Ch
At 5,070 pounds, the plane weighs about as much as an SUV. Its wingspan is 236 feet, more than that of a Boeing 747. © Solar Impulse /
The lightweight Solar Impulse 2, a new solar-powered aircraft, is attempting the first round-the-world flight without using a drop of fuel. © Solar Impulse /
Before it departed from Abu Dhabi, the plane carried out an inaugural flight, taking off from the Payerne airport in Switzerland. © Solar Impulse /
On long stretches over oceans, the pilot will be alone in the plane for five to six days and eat food akin to astronaut fare. © Solar Impulse /

If ever there were a reason to sleep on a seat that converts to a toilet, circumnavigating the world in a solar-powered plane might be it. The revolutionary solo aircraft—imagined by the psychiatrist and round-the-world balloonist Bertrand Piccard, and designed by an engineer named André Borschberg—will, Borschberg predicts, “change the way we think about energy.”

Solar Impulse 2 weighs as little as an SUV but boasts a wingspan greater than a Boeing 747. It’s built of carbon fiber, with 17,000 solar cells in the wing and tail; during the day the cells on the wing supply the motors with energy and charge lithium batteries, which power the plane at night. Top speed is a poky 87 miles per hour, but the maximum altitude is a heady 28,000 feet.

After taking off in early March from Abu Dhabi, the plane is currently flying east over Asia and the Pacific, and will cross the United States this month before returning to the United Arab Emirates this summer. The itinerary depends on the weather—sunshine, after all, is a must. Borschberg and Piccard are taking turns piloting, and each is prepared to spend five or six days and nights in the air at a time. The Swiss pilots are eating food akin to astronaut fare, listening to Leonard Cohen recordings and using self-hypnosis to “regenerate” and sleep less.

“People believe they have to reduce their lifestyles to protect the environment,” says Piccard. “We want to demonstrate that clean technology can achieve the impossible: protecting the environment, creating jobs and making profit for industry.”

LIVE: Solar Impulse Airplane - Takeoff from Varanasi - #RTW Attempt

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