Check Out Solar Impulse, The Solar-Powered Aeroplane That Can Fly Forever

Screen Shot 2014 04 11 at 10.00.43 AMSolar ImpulseSolar Impulse takes off from Rabat, Morocco.

Solar Impulse is a Swiss aircraft designed for long-range flights, travelling under the power of nothing more than sunlight, and it’s gearing up to complete a flight around the world in 2015.

The plane employs 17,248 solar cells to harness the sun’s energy. As the sun sets, the plane switches over to the energy stored in its batteries. Solar Impulse can, in theory, perpetually stay aloft for as long as a pilot wants to fly.

This is a project dreamed up by Bertrand Piccard, a Swiss who co-piloted a non-stop balloon flight around the world in 1999, and André Borschberg, a Swiss businessman.

Piccard has a family history of exploring — his father was a noted undersea explorer and his grandfather was a prominent balloonist too. Borschberg leads the technical team that actually builds the systems that make Solar Impulse work. The two undertook the project as a means of demonstrating that “pioneering spirit, innovation, and clean technologies can change the world.”

Here's the public unveiling of the aeroplane's design in 2007. Check out that wingspan!

Swiss businessman André Borschberg is co-founder of the Solar Impulse project.

It's also led by Swiss psychiatrist Bertrand Piccard, who previously co-piloted the first balloon to travel around the world non-stop.

This truck carried the wings before they're installed on the plane.

Solar Impulse is surprisingly large overall. While its wings stretch a surprising 236 feet...

...the cockpit is just about as small as can be for the sake of keeping it light and efficient.

Here's a look at the cockpit instruments.

The plane saw its first test flight in 2009. The team called it a 'flea hop,' flying a mere three feet high for a distance of 1,200 feet.

Since it was the first time the plane had ever left the ground, the 'flea hop' saw the plane fly that low for the sake of safety.

Despite it not being a showy test run, the team was still elated at its success.

But planes aren't intended for flying three feet off the ground.

Manned test flights of more consequence began later in 2009.

Pilots get plenty of help from the Solar Impulse ground team.

This picture comes from the fourth leg of Solar Impulse's first intercontinental flight, seen taking off in Rabat, Morocco.

After landing in Ouarzazate, the team danced with some rather elated Moroccans.

The challenge that looms ahead -- to fly around the world -- means they're spending lots of time in the flight simulator.

Piccard recently completed a three-day stretch in the simulator over December 17-20, 2013.

It's a good analogue for the real thing, which will take 20-25 days total with pilots flying for 3-4 days at a time, though it won't use a drop of fuel.

The sunlight-powered flight around the world is slated for 2015.

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