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Dublin: 9 °C Tuesday 19 November, 2019
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This solar-powered plane is nearing the end of a historic trip

The plane will soon become the first solar-powered airplane to circle the globe without using fuel.

The Solar Impulse 2 flying over San Francisco on Saturday.
The Solar Impulse 2 flying over San Francisco on Saturday.
Image: AP Photo/Noah Berger

SOLAR IMPULSE 2 WAS on Monday approaching the end of its epic bid to become the first sun-powered airplane to circle the globe without a drop of fuel to promote renewable energy.

When the experimental aircraft touches down in Abu Dhabi in the early hours of Tuesday, it will cap a remarkable 42,000 km journey across four continents, two oceans and three seas.

With Swiss explorer and project director Bertrand Piccard in the cockpit, the plane is due to land at Al-Bateen Executive Airport in the UAE capital where it launched its tour on 9 March 2015.

By 2pm on Monday, Solar Impulse 2 had travelled more than 2,200 kilometres (1,400 miles) in nearly 38 hours on its final leg, flying over Qatar’s northern tip after crossing the vast Saudi desert.

Dubbed the “paper plane”, Solar Impulse 2 is circumnavigating the globe in stages, with 58-year-old Piccard and his compatriot Andre Borschberg taking turns at the controls of the single-seat aircraft.

It took off from Cairo on its final leg early on Sunday, having previously crossed Asia, North America, Europe and North Africa.

Borschberg, 63, smashed the record for the longest uninterrupted journey in aviation history with the 8,924 km flight between Nagoya, Japan and Hawaii that lasted nearly 118 hours.

No heavier than a car but with the wingspan of a Boeing 747, the four-engine battery-powered aircraft relies on around 17,000 solar cells embedded in its wings.

Its broad wings and light weight make it particularly sensitive to turbulence.

The plane has clocked an average speed of 80 km an hour.

Mideast Egypt Solar Plane The Solar Impulse 2 after it landed in Cairo. Source: AP Photo/Mohamed Elraai

‘Achieve the impossible’

The pilots use oxygen tanks to breathe at high altitude and wear suits specially designed to cope with the extreme conditions.

They must withstand temperatures inside the tiny cockpit ranging from -20C to 35C.

The plane, equipped with a parachute and life raft in case of an accident, flew at an altitude exceeding 9,144 metres over Saudi Arabia on Sunday.

Piccard has said he launched the project in 2003 to show that renewable energy “can achieve the impossible”.

His dream looks set to come true, but it did take much longer than planned.

The attempt was initially expected to last five months, including 25 days of actual flying.

But the aircraft was grounded in July last year when its solar-powered batteries suffered problems halfway through the trip.

The project has also been beset by bad weather and illness which forced Piccard to delay the final leg.

While in the air, the pilot is constantly in contact with mission control in Monaco, where a team of weathermen, mathematicians and engineers monitors the route and prepares flight strategies.

“It’s a project for energy, for a better world,” Piccard told journalists in Cairo before taking off on the final leg.

Solar Plane Pilot Andre Borschberg sitting in the cockpit. Source: AP Photo/Matt York

‘Flying laboratory’

A psychiatrist who made the first non-stop balloon flight around the world in 1999, Piccard had warned that the last leg of the Solar Impulse 2 tour would be difficult because of the high temperatures.

Speaking to the BBC from the cockpit, Piccard described the final stage as a “fantastic moment” and likened the plane to a “flying laboratory”.

“We are testing all these new, clean and modern technologies in order to fly with an endless endurance,” he said.

While the pilots do not expect commercial solar-powered planes any time soon, they hope the project will help spur wider progress in clean energy.

“We have new insulation material, new LED lamps, we have new extremely light carbon fibre structures… All this can be used now on the ground,” dividing “by two the energy consumption and therefore the CO2 emissions of the world”, Piccard said.

“It’s a complete revolution in the protection of the environment.”

© AFP 2016

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