An attempt to fly around the world exclusively using solar power has been stalled because of weather conditions and damage to the plane. The aircraft, called the Solar Impulse 2, was on its way across the Pacific Ocean from China to Hawaii for the most challenging leg of the worldwide trip. However, just 36 hours into the flight, a cold front brought rain and icy conditions which forced an unplanned landing in Japan. The decision to land was a safety precaution, since the aircraft was just hours away from a point of no return, which would have required the pilot to bail into the ocean if any problems occurred.
The Solar Impulse 2 is a project that was co-founded by two Swiss explorers with the goal of flying around the globe without a drop of fuel. Andre Borschberg is the designer and solo pilot, while Bertrand Piccard handles the business side and monitors the flight from mission control. Together technological partners and advisers and 50 engineers and technicians, they designed the efficient plane, which has a wider wingspan than a Boeing 747-81 but only weighs as much as a car. The aircraft is built of lightweight carbon fibers and its 236-foot wings are covered in 17,000 solar cells that power four electric motors. Solar Impulse’s lithium batteries were designed with electrolytes to increase energy density, which allows the plane to fly at night using stored solar power.
Borschberg made a smooth landing in Japan on Monday, but since the stop was unplanned, the plane’s custom hangar was not at the airport. Unfortunately, the Solar Impluse’s wing was damaged by the wind in the hours before the hangar arrived. Repairs are expected to take at least a week, and then meteorologists will watch for a clear weather window for the rest of the trip to Hawaii. Borschberg will need four days of good winds and clear skies in order to safely travel across the Pacific.
Although the Solar Impulse team is disappointed with the delays (they had already waited more than a month in China for weather conditions to improve), they have already broken records for the longest flight by a solar plane and are optimistic about the future. Piccard told BBC News, “If it was easy someone else would have done it before.” The Solar Impulse team is hoping for minimal delays in the remaining six legs of the 21,748 mile trip around the world, especially because Borschberg will need to fly over the Atlantic before peak hurricane season in August.