On Friday, the Solar Impulse 2 solar-electric airplane landed at JFK Airport in New York, completing the North America leg of its around-the-world journey. The Solar Impulse project, conceived by adventurer Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, is seeking to fly around the world while consuming zero fuel. This “zero fuel airplane” is instead powered by solar panels embedded in the wings, with battery packs to store electricity so the plane can fly all night long and the theoretical possibility of perpetual flight. The flight is demonstrating the growing capability of electric vehicles, solar power and energy storage technology.
The North America leg just completed began in April 2016 with a nearly 4 day flight from Hawaii to Moffett Field in Silicon Valley, California. After a few days of meeting with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, they flew to Phoenix, then to Tulsa Oklahoma, then to Dayton Ohio where they visited with descendants of the Wright Brothers, and then to Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. That put them within shouting distance of New York City, and for the team fulfillment of a long-standing team to get pictures of the Solar Impulse flying next to the Statue of Liberty.
Yesterdays flight left the Lehigh Valley International Airport in the evening, flew across Pennsylvania and New Jersey, before entering the New York harbor area at around 2AM local time. After spending over an hour circling the Statue of Liberty, Borschberg flew around the south end of Long Island, into Jamaica Bay, landing at JFK Airport at about 4AM local time.
While their goal is flying around the world with no fuel, this is not to be achieved in one continuous flight. That’s because the Solar Impulse has a very low flight speed (about 30 knots) meaning the trip would take several weeks of continuous flying. Because it is manned by a human pilot, a flight of 4-5 days is possible, but one of several weeks is completely impractical. Instead, the flights tend to take one long day – 17 hours or so – or several days when flying over the ocean.
Which demonstrates the core point of the Solar Impulse’s journey. How does an airplane stay aloft for several days at a stretch? It does this by not being limited in fuel it carries on-board. The solar panels embedded in the wings capture enough electricity during the day so the Solar Impulse 2 can fly all night long. When the sun rises the next day, it can repeat the same pattern, capture enough energy to fly that entire day and through the next night.
Through this journey, the Solar Impulse 2 has covered about 30,000 kilometers, with 384 hours flight time. To do so it has converted nearly 9 megaWatt-hours of sunlight to electricity.
The journey began about a year ago in Abu Dhabi. If all had gone well, the Solar Impulse would have returned to Abu Dabi last Fall. But, during the flight from Nagoya Japan to Hawaii, the battery pack became damaged. The repairs required meant delaying the North America leg of the trip until this year.
The next stage of the journey will see Bertrand Piccard fly across the Atlantic, taking about 4 days. The European destination has not been chosen. The team runs thousands of flight simulations before every trip, looking primarily at changing weather patterns before deciding the next destination in the journey. Tentatively they’re predicting landing in Seville Spain, Toulouse France, perhaps in Morocco, or even in Paris France.
While landing in Paris would let the Solar Impulse connect with the aura of Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic, it would complicate the next leg which is to fly to the Eastern Mediterranean. The last leg will go from there (Cyprus? Athens?) to Abu Dhabi. According to discussion on the Solar Impulse Live live show on Friday, their preference is to land in either Seville or Toulouse.
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