It's a plane. It's solar. It's SLOW

A plane that can fly across the U.S. in just one month? Sure, it may sound unimpressive when a commercial flight can make the trip in less than six hours. But it’s pretty remarkable when you consider that this plane runs only on solar energy and travels at a mere 44 mph (70 kph).

The plane, called the Solar Impulse, can theoretically fly forever since it is not limited by the need to refuel. So why will this historic flight take so long?

The aircraft carries only one person. The plane needs to land so that the pilot can rest, recharge and, presumably, take a potty break.

Piloted by Bertrand Piccard, the Solar Impulse took off from Moffett Airfield in Silicon Valley Friday, May 3 to begin the first cross-U.S. flight of an airplane powered only by solar energy.

The first leg of the journey, which ended in Phoenix, AZ, took 18 hours and 18 minutes. The cross-country trip will end sometime in July, after additional stops in Dallas, TX, Washington D.C. and New York.

With the wingspan of a jumbo jet but the weight of only a small car, the Swiss aircraft can fly both day and night by using energy stored in its batteries, which make up almost 25 percent of the plane’s weight.

Piccard, who was the first person to complete a non-stop round-the-world balloon trip, called the flight “mythical in the history of aviation because all the big pioneers of the 20th century have tried to fly coast to coast.”

He also cited the disconnect between restrictions involved in having to coordinate the flight with the FAA and air traffic control and the fact that the plane could have complete freedom since, without needing to refuel, it could, in theory, fly forever.

Some of Solar Impulse’s features:

  • Its solar panels are as thin as a human hair.
  • The plane’s engines are 94 percent efficient.
  • Its fuselage is made from carbon fiber sheets three times thinner than paper.

Part of the mission of the Solar Impulse project is “for the world of exploration and innovation to contribute to the cause of renewable energies, to demonstrate the importance of clean technologies for sustainable development; and to place dreams and emotions back at the heart of scientific adventure.”

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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