In a milestone accomplishment for clean energy, ‘Solar Impulse‘ — an airplane equipped with 12,000 solar cells — landed in Switzerland Thursday after completing a 24-hour test flight, successfully proving that it could stay aloft through the night powered only by the sunlight collected in its almost 900 pounds of batteries. The record-setting flight is just the next step in the project’s ultimate goal to circumnavigate the globe.
Seven years in the making, the solar plane‘s latest achievement went leaps and bounds beyond its prior flight tests, which were minor skips and hops by comparison. The $95 million dollar project exceeded expectations, assisted by clear and sunny skies, harvesting 20 percent more energy during the trip than the team’s most optimistic estimates.
‘Solar Impulse’ pilot, 57-year-old Andre Borschberg, was largely accredited for the triumph, as he had to endure extremely uncomfortable conditions while safely navigating the lightweight aircraft with a wingspan the size of a commercial airliner through turbulence and thermal winds. Since the plane has no autopilot, Borschberg used yoga exercises to assist with blood circulation, and breathing exercises and a water spray to remain awake and alert for the 26 hours he ultimately spent in the cockpit, culminating in a pristine landing at 9am.
Bertrand Piccard is the man behind the ‘Solar Impulse’, who hopes to use the project to raise awareness about the potential of renewable energy technologies, pushing modern society away from its fossil fuel addiction and toward a sustainable model. While he doesn’t realistically see fuel-based aviation travel becoming obsolete in the immediate future, he recognizes the landmark flight as a wake-up call to those who didn’t believe such a monumental feat was possible with nothing but solar energy. In 1999, Piccard shattered similar doubts — and records — when he became the first person to pilot a balloon non-stop around the globe.
The next move for the Swiss-based team behind ‘Solar Impulse’ is to construct a larger and more efficient plane, which will be able to complete even longer flights, eventually hoping to fly around the planet powered by nothing but the sun.