Solar Impulse 2015: Around The World In A Solar-Powered Airplane
December 4, 2012

Solar Impulse 2015: Around The World In A Solar-Powered Airplane

[Watch Video: Learning To Fly A Solar Plane]

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

With a recent record-setting intercontinental flight using only the power of the sun still fresh in their minds, Bertrand Piccard and his partner Andre Borschberg are now setting their sights on the future. The duo that took wing on the Solar Impulse aircraft from Switzerland to Morocco and back again, are now planning for a world tour, becoming the only people to fly around the world in a solar-powered plane both day and night.

The story comes to us by way of Bob Simon, a news correspondent for CBS, who spoke with Piccard and Borschberg about their record-breaking attempts and their new plans to circumnavigate the earth in 20 days and 20 nights without a single drop of fuel. The story was featured Sunday night on CBS´s “60 Minutes.”

The duo´s Solar Impulse currently holds the record for the longest flight by a manned solar-powered aircraft, flying at an altitude of 30,000 feet for more than 26 hours. The plane, which uses no traditional fuel whatsoever, operates on four propeller engines that are powered by 12,000 solar cells attached to the craft´s massive wings. While it isn´t the first plane to ever be powered solely by the sun, it is the first to fly both at day and at night.

Piccard and Borschberg earlier this year completed a 3,600-mile-plus voyage that took them from their European home base of Payerne, Switzerland to Ouarzazate, Morocco in North Africa, and then back home again over the course of 2 months. While the mission wasn´t completely problem-free (mainly grounded due to strong headwinds and dangerous storms on a few occasions) the duo believe the aircraft´s radical design could allow it to fly forever under favorable conditions.

The solar cells that power the plane´s engines are not only attached to the wings, but actually are its wings, Piccard said in his interview with Simon. He explained how the solar cells convert light into electricity, which travels “simultaneously to the engines and to the batteries.” As night falls, the electricity stored can power the craft until the following morning when the sun arises and the process is started all over again, he said.

Piccard said the prospect of a roundtrip around the world is exhilarating. And rightly so for a man who has adventure in his genes. His grandfather set an altitude record and perhaps was the first person to ever see the curvature of the earth. His father was also an adventurer and set a record for deepest dive, submerging to the bottom of Challenger Deep (a record matched by "Avatar" producer James Cameron earlier this year) in the Mariana Trench in a bathyscape.

Piccard himself has also set records. He became the first person to complete a nonstop flight around the globe in a hot air balloon. After which he spent a decade raising the $120 million needed to build the aircraft he hopes will send him and his colleague Borschberg on another round trip flight–although this time on just the power of the sun.

Piccard said that growing up he really looked up to his father and grandfather. He said he used to read stories “about the Earth being flat, being round or whatever.” But when his grandfather came back from his record-setting feats and told him “I saw the curvature of the Earth with my eyes,” he said that really nailed it for him; he knew then that he wanted to follow in his grandfather´s footsteps.

And while he has lived up to those words, he said that he only first dreamed up the idea of flying around the world on zero fuel after crash landing his balloon in the Egyptian desert on his then round-the-world adventure.

"It was almost a failure due to the dependency on fuel and on that day I made a promise," he said. "I made a promise that the next time I would fly around the world it would be with no fuel at all."

Although Piccard and Borschberg´s goal is to show that emissions-free air travel is possible, they said it does not see solar technology replacing todays´ fuel-hungry airplanes any time soon. Instead, the project is designed to promote new energy-efficient technologies.

While the team feels the goal of a round-the-world mission is recognizable, they said the most challenging feat will be a five day flight over the Pacific Ocean. With the potential for dangerous storms, the plane´s lightweight components may be vulnerable to damage. And if clouds persist for too long over the ocean, it could hamper the cells´ ability to recharge.

To show the world they are in fact working toward that dream, the duo plan to test the latest design of their aircraft next year with a flight from California to Virgina, ahead of long preparations for the 2015 world tour.