The Solar Impulse 2 isn’t for those looking for a speedy ride. On May 12, the single-seater solar-powered plane, will undergo a five day, five night journey across the Pacific, from Nanjing, China, to Honolulu. It will be the hardest part of its round-the-world trip, which began earlier this year.
Prior to this flight, the Solar Impulse had only flown for 20 hours on end. There is little margin for error while flying in slow-motion across the Pacific.
The Solar Impulse 2 and it’s predecessor, The Solar Impulse, have been in development for the last 12 years. The latest iteration of the lightweight plane is an engineering marvel, with carbon fiber, 236-foot-long wings covered in solar panels; four electric motors that charge onboard batteries, allowing the plane to fly at night when the sun doesn’t shine; and a cockpit that doubles as a bathroom.
The plane travels at just 87 miles per hour, and it’s extremely sensitive to turbulence and wind because it’s so light (it weighs less than an SUV). But its creators, Swiss pilots André Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard are confident that it can make the trip to Honolulu. “We’ve never done this. Of course, we could measure, evaluate, and simulate, but it’s not done yet,” says Borschberg, who will pilot this leg of the flight (Piccard will later take over for a four-day journey to Phoenix, Arizona).
In order to prepare for the trip, Borschberg spent three days and three nights in a flight simulator, practicing what it will be like to sleep in 20 minute intervals. A practiced yogi, he’s developed yoga postures that he can perform in the confined space of the cockpit. He also plans to rely on meditation and breathing exercises. “It’s a good way to learn to observe yourself,” he says. “It’s a technological exploration and also a personal exploration.”
Every day, the plane will climb to 28,000 feet, and in the evening, it will go down as low as 3,000 feet to conserve energy. The onboard batteries will regularly get down to 5% or 10% capacity. At night, Borschberg will have more room to relax, doing his mediation and using social media to share his journey. As soon as the plane climbs up and he has to don an oxygen mask in the unpressurized cockpit, Borschberg’s activities are limited.
The food, at least, won’t require much thought. Nestle has created special meals for Solar Impulse 2–including potato gratin, curry soup, and mushroom risotto–that can survive a wide range of temperatures for months at a time.
Borschberg believes that he’ll be ready should an emergency arise; he already has had to deal with a motor failure during a trip between Washington, D.C., and New York City on a flight with the original Solar Impulse. ” I have a parachute, a life raft, and I did some training with the Navy to learn how to survive in the ocean. An emergency happened when I was on my way to JFK, so I know I can do it. It’s less frightening,” he says.
Piccard created the Solar Impulse project in 2003, a few years after he finished a round-the-world balloon flight. “I realized that everything I do is dependent on fossil energy. I almost failed the balloon flight because of a lack of fuel with me, so I thought, ‘Next time I’ll make it without fuel,” he said in an earlier interview with Co.Exist. Now, Solar Impulse has become a symbol of solar energy’s power–proof that we can overcome even the most difficult environmental sustainability challenges if we really try.
Solar Impulse 2 will embark on its Pacific Ocean on Tuesday, depending on weather conditions.