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Up with the sun

What began as an idea seven years ago has soared to new heights.

Packed with Swiss technology and backed by a host of personalities, the Solar Impulse plane completed the highest, longest flight of a solar-powered plane on July 7-8, 2010. It is a prototype for another version that pilots Bertrand Piccard, famous for his round-the-world balloon flight, and André Borschberg, a former fighter jet pilot, hope to fly round the world in five stages beginning in 2012.

The SFr100 million project involves upwards of 70 team members, including Swiss astronaut Claude Nicollier who has been leading test flights. The plane, which has flown for 26 continuous hours and at up to a height of more than 8,000 metres, has the wingspan of a Airbus (61 metres) but just a fraction of the weight at 1,600kg. Some 12,000 solar cells and high-performance batteries store energy that allow the delicate plane to fly through the night. It has to avoid storms and is sensitive to turbulence. Should the wings bank more than five degrees, alarms will begin to sound. The project aims to promote renewable energies and not to replace fuel-powered craft – at least for now.

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