Tackling an around-the-world plane flight — without fossil fuel

The Solar Impulse, the first solar-powered airplane that can fly at night.
(Credit: Solar Impulse/Screenshot by Michelle Meyers/CNET)

Adventurers discuss challenges faced in bid to become first to circumnavigate the globe without fossil fuel in the Solar Impulse, first solar-powered plane that can fly at night.

One might say Bertrand Piccard has daring adventure in his blood.

The 54-year-old Swiss balloonist’s grandfather set an altitude record, while his father was one of the first people to explore the deepest part of the world’s oceans. But now Piccard and his partner Andre Borschberg are aiming to enter the record books with an around-the-world flight in a solar-powered plane that can fly at night without fossil fuel.

Piccard and Borschberg spoke with Bob Simon for a “60 Minutes” report to be broadcast tonight about the Solar Impulse, a slender aircraft that weighs only about as much as a midsize┬ácar┬ábut that has a wingspan to match that of a jumbo jet.

After becoming the first person to complete a nonstop balloon flight around the globe, Piccard spent 10 years raising the $120 million necessary to build the aircraft he hopes will achieve the feat in 2015. He hopes such a trip will intensify the public’s focus on harnessing solar power.

His father was the late deep-sea explorer Jacques Piccard, whose voyage to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the submersible vessel the Trieste still holds the depth record. But Piccard said it was his grandfather Auguste’s balloon ascent to 53,153 feet above sea level that inspired him to become an adventurer.

“That was really impressive for me as a kid because I was reading in the history books all the stories about the Earth being flat, being round,” Piccard said. “My grandfather came back and said, ‘I saw the curvature of the Earth with my eyes.’ So, once you live this as a kid, of course, you want to continue into that field of exploration.”

The Solar Impulse has a wingspan of more than 200 feet, which boosts its aerodynamic efficiency. That long wingspan also houses the more than 12,000 solar panels that soak up the sunlight required to power the Solar Impulse during the day and charge its lithium polymer batteries to keep it aloft at night.

Piccard and Borschberg have already flown the Solar Impulse — the only solar aircraft that can fly at night — 2,500 miles from Switzerland to Africa and back. However, the five days it will take to fly over the Pacific Ocean poses the greatest challenge. The plane’s lightweight components are especially vulnerable to damage in storms, and too many clouds may hamper its ability to recharge its batteries.


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