Solar Impulse 2, a lightweight airplane powered solely by sunlight, lifted off from Abu Dhabi on March 9 on the first leg of a quest to become the first solar powered plane to fly around the world. The journey will take several months and is expected to end back where it started in July or August. The precise timetable will depend on weather along the route.
The solar airplane is made of carbon fiber and has 17,248 solar cells built into the wing to recharge four lithium polymer batteries. It’s 236 foot wingspan is larger than that of the Boeing 747 but it weighs just over 5,000 pounds.
Solar Impulse was founded by André Borschberg in 2008 with the intention of creating awareness about replacing “old polluting technologies with clean and efficient technologies.” It’s a pretty big stretch to think about commercial air travel transitioning to solar power any time soon, but the dirty little secret about modern tourism is that today’s fleet of airplanes are some of the biggest polluters on the planet and spew a plume of CO2 behind them wherever they go.
The plane will touch down in Oman after a 10 hour flight. From there, it will head to India, where it will make two stops, then to China and Myanmar before heading across the Pacific and stopping in Hawaii. Then it will head to Phoenix, Arizona, and New York’s biggest airport, John F. Kennedy International. The path across the Atlantic will depend on the weather and could include a stop in southern Europe or Morocco before ending in Abu Dhabi. The trip across the Pacific Ocean may take 5 or 6 days to complete.
Borschberg was at the controls of Solar Impulse 2 for the start of the journey. He will be relieved by Solar Impulse co-founder Bertrand Piccard along the way. The pair say they want to push politicians, celebrities and private citizens to “confront the Conference on Climate Change of the United Nations, which will define the new Kyoto protocol in December 2015 in Paris.” All countries are supposed to present targets for a new global climate agreement that governments plan to adopt at the meeting.
Most people alive today will never fly in a solar airplane. But our children or grandchildren might. The round the world journey of Solar Impulse 2 might be called a John Glenn moment – one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind. Godspeed.