Solar Impulse passes ‘point of no return’ over Pacific

29 Jun 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

A solar-powered plane is now crossing the Pacific, and there’s nowhere to land for days.

The pilots of Solar Impulse 2, the first solar-powered plane to attempt to circumnavigation the globe, just crossed their “point of no return.” Faced with the choice of flying for five days and nights over the Pacific Ocean, too far from any continent or island to make an emergency stop, or abandoning their mission, they chose today to fly.After two months of setbacks, delay and dismay, the team aiming to accomplish the first ever solar-powered plane trip around the world wanted to start its longest and most difficult leg in secret.

Weather constraints had delayed the trip by more than a month, but now the journey has passed its ‘point of no return’ and the plane will either land in Hawaii on Friday, or crash into the ocean.The Solar Impulse solar-powered airplane has set off from Nagoya in Japan on its 120-hour flight to Hawaii—one the most perilous legs of its round-the-world flight. The plane’s huge wings, silver with solar cells, are stretched out over the open ocean south and east of Japan, and it’ll be another four days before pilot André Borschberg sees the landmass of Hawaii on the horizon. (A live video from inside the cockpit is accidentally reminiscent of Star Wars, both for the orange flight suit and the Darth Vader breathing soundtrack.) The flight is long because the plane is slow. If they had to turn back yet again, Solar Impulse co-founder and pilot Bertrand Piccard explained in a video interview (he’s not flying this leg), the team didn’t want to disappoint their fans, or the press.

At the start of the month the airplane attempted the trans-pacific flight—one of the most difficult on the first-ever solar powered round-the-world flight—but it had to abandon the attempt due to bad weather. On June 1, Swiss pilot Andre Borschberg made the first attempt, departing from Nanjing, China, but shifting weather patterns forced him to abort the planned six-day trip. The 4,500-mile (7,200km) flight to Hawaii is by far the longest leg of the journey so far, and is extremely risky because there are no places to land in an emergency. If the pilot succeeds, he will have completed the longest solo flight in aviation history, plus the furthest distance covered by a solar-powered craft. “We really are in the moment of truth now. And Monday morning, 10 hours after takeoff, Piccard’s fellow pilot and founder Andre Borschberg tweeted an image from the air: the plane’s wing silhouetted against the sunrise, pointing forward.

Can the plane manage it?” Conor Lennon, a member of the Solar Impulse team told the Guardian from the project’s headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland. Because Solar Impulse is powered entirely by 17,000 photovoltaic cells attached to the top of its wings and fuselage, the plane relies on clear, sunny days to collect enough solar power to run its engines. Before take-off, fellow Swiss co-pilot and co-founder Betrand Piccard told MailOnline that the team had until about 10 August to complete the crossing of the Atlantic. The 62-year-old pilot will spend the flight strapped in his seat in a cockpit about the size of a telephone booth, and will have to endure temperatures of up to 55 degrees Celsius.

Though it can fly through cloudy weather for up to 10 hours, it must soak up enough sunlight during the day to charge the batteries that keep the aircraft aloft during nighttime flying. One of those occurred when Mr Borschberg was actually in the air – and the team made the dramatic last-minute decision last month to make the unscheduled stop in Nagoya as the weather worsened. If Borschberg manages to complete this perilous Pacific leg, project co-founder Bertrand Piccard will take over for the crossing from Hawaii to the US mainland. Bertrand Piccard, the other pilot behind the project, and the first person to fly round the world in a hot air balloon, is watching this leg from the ground.

The experimental aircraft has a 72-meter (236-foot) wingspan – larger than a Boeing 747 – and is bristling with 17,248 solar cells that power four electric motors. He will follow the plane’s progress via a barrage of data-collecting instruments, sleeping in short bursts like his colleague, and hope sun keeps shining. It began its 22,000-mile (35,400km) round-the-world trip in March, taking off from Abu Dhabi and landing safely in Oman 12 hours and 250 miles (400km) later.

Piccard has said that many of Solar Impulse’s corporate sponsors have remained steadfast in their support, but he has acknowledged that keeping the project’s team of 150 employees intact will be a challenge if the delays were to continue. Piccard said in 2013 that his household growing up was brimming with heady tales of discovery and discussions of mankind’s endless potential for progress. He didn’t realize there was any other way to look at a problem except as a possibility. “All the most incredible things seemed to be completely normal,” Piccard told an audience at the NASA Ames Research Center in California, according to the New York Times. “I thought this was the normal way to live and I was very disappointed to see that there are a lot of people who are afraid of the unknown, afraid of the doubts, afraid of the question marks.” In 1999, he and fellow aeronaut Brian Jones became the first people to complete a non-stop trip around globe in a balloon. Their original model, Solar Impulse 1, made its first flight in 2009 — a 350-meter “flea hop” that took it just one meter above the runway in Dübendorf, Switzerland. It was not the first time a solar-powered plane had ever left the ground, but it was the first time that a plane with the potential to fly through the night had done so.

Though it has roughly the same wingspan as an Airbus A380, the world’s largest commercial aircraft currently in service, it’s less than 1 percent of the Airbus’s weight — even when the A380 isn’t carrying passengers. That’s part of the reason that this round-the-world trip is being undertaken in stages, with Piccard and Borschberg alternating time at the controls. But bad weather in early June grounded the plane, and a second flight attempt later in the month was cancelled because of concerns about weather conditions. During flight they wear goggles that flash lights to wake them up, and armbands beneath their flight suit will buzz if the plane isn’t flying straight.

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