[Image above] A solar-powered plane is gearing up for an attempt at the world’s first around-the-world solar flight. Credit: Melissa Bel; Flickr; CC BY 2.0

A plane powered only by the sun is set to become the first to complete an around-the-world solar flight.

Solar Impulse 2—which completed its first test flight in early June—is the result of more than 12 years of blood, sweat, and R&D.

With the wingspan of a 747 and the weight of an average minivan, the plane isn’t exactly swift, reaching top speeds of just 40 mph. But what it lacks in speed it makes up for in energy savings, soaking up the sun’s power in the more than 17,000 solar cells that line the composite carbon-fiber materials that keep Impulse light—and relying on lithium batteries to keep it flying through the night.

According to the Solar Impulse website, the idea for the solar-powered plane came to company president Bertrand Piccard after taking part in the first successful round-the-world balloon flight.

Together, he and André Borschberg, Solar Impulse CEO and copilot, set out to show that alternative energy sources and technologies could achieve the impossible—in this case, the aforementioned around-the-world flight.


Credit: Stephanie Booth; Flickr; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In 2013, a prototype (Solar Impulse 1) plane crisscrossed the United States, flying from San Francisco to New York City—and Phoenix, Dallas, St. Louis, and D.C. in between—at a snail’s pace. The 18 hour and 23 minute trek gave engineers plenty of ideas for improvement, particularly with regards to the materials (composites and honeycomb structure) that make Impulse the lightest airplane possible.

During the June 2 test flight, a revised plane took off from a Swiss airfield, flying for two hours at 1,670 meters (5,479 feet).

There will be additional test flights before Piccard and Borschberg attempt their globe-crossing flight in March 2015, which will leave plenty of time for cheerleaders and naysayers to debate whether or not the sluggish solar-powered planes will ever see commercial use.

Regardless, their attempt­—and the certain adventure along the way—will hopefully be one for the record books. 

To see Solar Impulse in action, check out the high-flying video below.

Credit: Solar Impulse; YouTube