A solar-powered aircraft attempting to circumnavigate the globe began the final leg of its journey over the weekend, departing from the Egyptian capital of Cairo on Sunday for Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, the city where its voyage began in March 2015.
According to Reuters and BBC News, Solar Impulse, the single-seat, zero-fuel aircraft piloted at different times by Swiss aviators Andre Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard, is expected to reach its destination in 48-72 hours. Once it lands, it will have traveled about 30,000 kilometers (more than 18,600 miles) and become the first plane to circle the Earth using only solar power.
While the Solar Impulse team expects that Piccard, who is piloting the aircraft for the final leg of its journey, should not have too many difficulties, they did tell BBC News that they are a little bit worried that the heat in the Middle East could impact the plane’s performance. Piccard will likely spend much of the flight at high altitude, on oxygen, in order to avoid turbulence, they said.
Prior to liftoff, Piccard told Reuters, “The round the world flight ends in Abu Dhabi, but not the project.” That project, he explained, is “a big promotion of clean technologies around the world,” adding that “the legacy of Solar Impulse is the created international community.”
Solar Impulse Pilot: “Some passenger planes will be solar powered by 2026.”
Solar Impulse’s journey began when it lifted off from Abu Dhabi en route to Muscat, Oman on March 9, 2015. That initial journey took just over 13 hours and spanned 772 kilometers (around 480 miles), and was followed by trips to India, Myanmar, China, Japan, the US, Spain and then to Cairo, where it landed on July 11 after a nearly 49 hour segment of the voyage.
The aircraft was expected to take off shortly after reaching Egypt, but reports indicate that the final leg to the UAE had to be delayed due to a heat wave in Saudi Arabia. Once Piccard lands the plane in Abu Dhabi, it will bring to a close a 17-year undertaking that initially came to him after he completed the first non-stop, around the world balloon flight back in 1999.
Solar Impulse is constructed out of carbon fiber, has a larger wingspan than a Boeing 747 and is as heavy as a family-sized automobile. Even so, it is powered solely by solar energy collected by 17,000 photovoltaic cells located on its wings, some of which is stored in batteries to enable the plane to fly during the nighttime. It can reach speeds of up to 62 mph (100 kph) and altitudes of nearly 28,000 feet (8,500 meters), according to Reuters and BBC News.
While Piccard doubts that airliners will be replacing their jet engines with solar-powered ones any time soon, he told the British news agency that he is confident that “in 10 years we will have electric aeroplanes flying with 50 passengers for short- to medium-haul flights… and maybe sometimes people will say this all started with a crazy idea of flying around the world in a solar aeroplane, and the outcome was useful for everyone.”
Image credit: Solar Impulse