Solar plane begins most dangerous flight yet

Flight of fancy: The solar-powered plane is free of greenhouse gas emissions © PA

The fuel-free Solar Impulse 2 has begun the longest stretch of its historic journey around the world. Could sustainable air travel be the answer to climate change?

‘I cross my fingers and I hope to cross the Pacific,’ said pilot Andre Borschberg early yesterday morning, just hours before he began a dangerous five or six-day flight from Nanjing to Hawaii.

The trip is the longest leg of what is hoped to become the first round-the-world flight in a solar-powered plane. So far, Borschberg and his flying partner Betrand Piccard have completed six journeys between them, from Abu Dhabi to eastern China. When Borschberg reaches Hawaii, Piccard will take over for another long flight to Phoenix in the US.

It is sure to be a perilous test of endurance and skill. Conditions in the cockpit are tough: it is so small that the pilot is unable to stand, so the seat must also function as a toilet and a bed. When he sleeps, he can only take ‘catnaps’ of around 20 minutes at a time in calm weather.

The North Pacific ocean stretches between Eastern Asia and the Western coast of North America, and has historically been one of the most unpredictable voyages during attempts to circumnavigate the globe. Piccard said that he ‘will have a thought’ for the pioneering Amelia Earhart, who disappeared there while attempting her own world record in 1937.

To avoid such a tragedy, the two men have spent years preparing for this journey. Their movements will be tracked by a control team in Monaco, and they received training from the German Royal Navy in case they need to ditch the plane and parachute to the sea with a life raft, radio and food supplies.

Regardless of the outcome, the Solar Impulse 2 is an amazing feat of engineering. It is made from ultra-light carbon and powered during the day by solar panels on its wings, spine and tail. By the end of each night, it has just 5-10% of its reserve battery power left, and the process begins again. The pair is hoping that their solar-powered journey will not only highlight a possible future for aviation, but will raise awareness of the broader potential for clean energy.

Aviation is believed to be one of the worst forms of travel in terms of environmental impact. One return flight from London to New York can use a whole year’s personal carbon footprint allowance.

Since this article was published, the Solar Impulse 2 was forced to make an unscheduled landing in Japan to await more favourable weather conditions.

Fight or flight

If successful, many environmentalists will look to this flight as a real hope for the future. Finding a way to fly sustainably is exactly the kind of technology we should be investing in; it allows us to reduce emissions without sacrificing our global economy or quality of life.

This is a complacent fantasy, others argue. The technology is far too dangerous to be used for commercial flights. Change needs to happen now, and placing so much faith in uncertain renewable energy just ignores the real sacrifices that must be made.

You Decide

  1. Is solar power the future of aviation?
  2. Are such dangerous, symbolic journeys worth the risk?

Activities

  1. Write a diary describing the events of another historic aviation journey. What challenges must be overcome, and what will success mean for the world?
  2. Research the science of solar energy and write a short explanation of the arguments for and against using the sun’s rays to power the UK.

Some People Say...

“Adventure is worthwhile in itself.”

Amelia Earhart

What do you think?

Q & A

Why are aeroplanes worse for the environment?
For one thing, the simple distance that planes can cover while emitting carbon dioxide is so much further than most other transport. On top of that, the water vapour emissions — which would be harmless closer the ground — can react with the cold air to create cirrus clouds which add to the greenhouse effect.
Could the world ever convert to solar power?
It’s hard to say, but the solar industry is growing all the time — a US company recently predicted that solar power could soon be ‘as cheap as coal’ thanks to falling silicon prices. The UK government is currently forecasting that 4% of the UK’s energy will be solar powered by 2020. The technology could be particularly revolutionary for developing countries.

Word Watch

Betrand Piccard
Piccard comes from a family devoted to adventure. His father Jacques explored some of the deepest parts of the Pacific, and his grandfather Auguste was the first to enter the stratosphere in a balloon.
North Pacific
Together, the North and South Pacific cover 30% of the earth’s surface. It is the planet’s largest and deepest ocean.
Amelia Earhart
The first woman to fly across the Atlantic, and the first person to fly solo over the Pacific from Hawaii to California. She almost became the first woman to fly around the world, but her plane disappeared after taking off from New Guinea, never to be found.
Solar Impulse 2
Solar Impulse 1 was a prototype model which made the first day-and-night flight without fuel in July 2010. Its successor was built for the round-the-world project currently underway.
Ultra-light carbon
The carbon-fibre construction is so light that the plane weighs just 2,300kg, the equivalent of a small van — despite having a longer wingspan than a ‘Jumbo Jet’ Boeing 747.

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