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World’s First Solar-Powered Plane Making Its Way Around the Globe

Single-seat, solar-powered plane, Solar Impulse 2 successfully completed the second leg of its five-month journey around the planet, after touching down in Ahmedabad, India on Tuesday.

The journey began successfully after a 13-hour flight from Abu Dhabi to Muscat, Oman. “The flight went really well, everything went as planned,” said a team spokesperson of the first flight. This is but a small step (about 270 miles) on the 20,000-mile journey that will take about 500 hours of flying time. Pilot André Borschberg flew the first leg, while his partner Bertrand Piccard took the second leg.

The 5,000-pound, zero-emission plane has a wingspan longer than that of the Boeing 747. Solar panels covering the aircraft’s wings and fuselage charge four extra-efficient batteries, which power the 17.4-horsepower motors. That’s enough to move the plane at 20 to 90 mph, a speed closer to that of a professional cyclist than typical gas-powered planes.

While a gas-powered plane typically makes the flight from Abu Dhabi to Oman’s Muscat International Airport in just over an hour, Solar Impulse 2 did it in 13 hours, 1 minute; though it was supposed to take about 12, strong winds on the ground kept the plane in a holding pattern. It reached a maximum altitude of 19,000 feet, but for future, longer flights, like the coming five-day jaunt across the Pacific, the plan is to reach up to 28,000 feet during the day, then descend to about 5,000 feet at night, converting altitude into distance until the sun comes back up to recharge the batteries.

Stage two of the trip started in Muscat and ended in Ahmedabad, India on Tuesday. The 910-mile flight took about 20 hours. From there, the solar-powered plane will continue to Varanasi, India, then Mandalay, Myanmar, and Chongquing and Nanjing in China before the Pacific crossing, with a stop in Hawaii en route to Phoenix. Solar Impulse 2 will then stop somewhere in the Midwest, then land at New York’s JFK airport, before crossing the Atlantic, landing in either Southern Europe or North Africa, and then return to Abu Dhabi.

The point of the flight is to prove what’s possible, not to produce commercially viable solar-powered planes — the technology is far from being able to power commercial flights.

“When the Apollo astronauts went to the moon, it wasn’t to launch tourism on the moon and open hotels and make money,” said Piccard. “It was to inspire the world.”

Airplanes are a new addition to the world of solar-powered transportation. In early 2014, Ford introduced the C-MAX Solar Energi Concept, a first-of-its-kind sun-powered vehicle, while in December the Netherlands unveiled the world's first public road that includes embedded solar cells. Additionally, Tesla just introduced a solar-battery charging station for cars and homes alike.


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