Solar Impulse 2 successfully completes maiden voyage

Using only the power of the sun's rays, the souped up lightweight aircraft climbs to nearly 6,000 feet and stays aloft for more than two hours.

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The Solar Impulse 2 makes its inaugural flight. Screengrab by Dara Kerr/CNET

The Solar Impulse 2 is one step closer to its around-the-world journey. The enhanced Swiss-made solar-powered airplane successfully completed its first test flight on Monday.

The graceful plane lifted off from an airfield in Switzerland in the early morning, climbed to nearly 6,000 feet, stayed aloft for two hours and 17 minutes, and then safety touched down again, announced the team and pilots behind the airplane Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg.

"Today, Solar Impulse 2 has achieved its maiden flight," the team wrote on their website. "It is a great moment for everyone who has built this revolutionary solar airplane."

The Solar Impulse 2 is a souped up version of its predecessor, the Solar Impulse. It has a wider wingspan, lighter materials, a more efficient engine, and an upgraded cabin. The solar-powered plane weighs 2.3 tons -- not much more than an average car. And, at 72 meters, the airplane's wings are about 15 percent wider than the Solar Impulse 1 or a Boeing 747.

When the Solar Impulse 2 debuted in April, Borschberg said the wings were made with material that is one-third the weight of printer paper. They are also fitted with roughly 17,000 solar cells, which are a mere 135 microns thick. The plane's solar power lets it fly continually day and night without using any fuel.

The Solar Impulse 2 is not intended to replace commercial fuel-powered jets. The plane moves slowly and its lightweight components are vulnerable to damage in storms. Rather, Piccard and Borschberg hope that the aircraft will raise awareness around innovation and clean technology.

The first Solar Impulse journeyed across the US last year and had previously flown over several European countries. During its US voyage, the plane set a world record by covering the longest distance ever flown by a solar-powered aircraft, which was 957 miles, or 832 nautical miles.

Monday's test flight of the Solar Impulse 2 is the first of many in the months to come. Piccard and Borschberg will attempt their flight around the world in 2015.

 

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