Around the World in a Solar-Powered Plane


By Justin Kovach

Bertrand Piccard, the son of the celebrated undersea explorer Jacques Piccard, had already set a milestone after becoming the first human to circle the earth in a hot-air balloon. Now Piccard, along with fellow aviator Andre Borschberg, has established a new record by becoming one of the first humans to transverse the globe in a solar-powered airplane.

Have Sun, Will Travel

When Piccard took the plane, dubbed Solar Impulse 2, in for its final landing on July 26, 2016, he completed a 16-month, 24,500-mile flight around the world. The plane had amassed almost 500 hours of flight time since setting out on its journey from Abu Dhabi on March 9, 2015. 

At 208 feet, which is more than two-thirds the length of a football field, the wingspan of Solar Impulse 2 is longer than that of a Boeing 747. Yet despite this expanse, the plane only weighs as much as an average family car. Solar Impulse 2 is a propeller-driven aircraft with four engines that are powered by 17,000 solar cells built into the wings. Excess energy collected during the flight was stored in onboard batteries.

Several factors contributed to the success of this record-breaking flight. Foremost, perhaps, was the mental stamina of the pilots. Cruising at speeds of only 56 miles per hour at altitudes of 29,500 feet, the pilots had to stay awake and alert for hours on end. The innovative design and construction of the aircraft itself cannot be underestimated, either. And weather played a role as well, occasionally hindering smooth flying and causing the plane to be grounded for months at a time in some countries. 

Setting a Solar-Powered Precedent for the Future

Solar Impulse 2 made history in both aviation and energy by becoming the first fuel-free flight around the planet. And its accomplishment may change the design of passenger planes and the nature of commuting in the future. At the press conference following the flight’s historic completion, Piccard said, “I'm sure that within the next 10 years we'll see electric airplanes carrying 50 passengers on short- to medium-haul flights.”   

Whatever the future of air travel holds it will owe in part to the high-flying accomplishments of Solar Impulse 2 and its adventurous crew. 


  • In what other areas of your daily life do you feel solar energy could be harnessed and used?
  • Describe other clean energies besides solar. Which do you think will be more widely used, and why?
  • What is global warming and how does it affect you?


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