Bertrand Piccard Set to Fly Across the US on Solar Power

By Wesley Fenlon

Piccard comes from a long line of scientists and adventurers, and his upcoming flight from San Francisco to New York will be a major milestone for solar technology.

In the next few days, Bertrand Piccard will leave San Francisco on an airplane headed to New York. That's a long flight--five hours or so, on your typical 747--but he won't arrive until sometime in June or July. The plane Piccard is flying, dubbed Solar Impulse, only travels at about 50 miles per hour. It's also entirely solar powered, which will make the cross-country flight a historic milestone. Piccard and his partner André Borschberg have spent the better part of a decade designing Solar Impulse and preparing for solar-powered flights. And here's the most amazing part: This isn't even the most interesting thing about Bertrand Piccard.

Smithsonian Mag has a great story about Solar Impulse's impending flight, and it briefly touches on Piccard's history. In 1999, Piccard circumnavigated the globe in a gas-powered balloon. His father, Jacques Piccard, was one of the two men who first descended to the bottom of the Marianas Trench in 1960. They were the only men to reach the deepest point in the Ocean until James Cameron in 2012.

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Piccard's grandfather Auguste Piccard was also a balloon explorer and invented the bathyscape, used in undersea exploration. He designed the Trieste, which his son used to explore the Marianas Trench. And if the family wasn't acclaimed enough already, Auguste's twin brother Jean Felix Piccard invented high altitude unmanned balloons. Auguste served as the inspiration for Professor Cuthbert Calculus from Tintin, and he and Jean Felix had their family name adapted into Star Trek: The Next Generation character Jean-Luc Picard by George Roddenberry.

Bertrand Piccard clearly has a legacy to live up to, and his solar flight from California to New York is hopefully only a lead-up to a solar-powered circumnavigation of the globe. Solar Impulse won't be able to make that flight, however. Despite its 12,000 solar cells and 900 pounds of batteries, Solar Impulse couldn't sustain a pilot for the flight across the oceans, which will take 3-5 days to fly over at less than 50 miles per hour. Piccard plans to add a larger cockpit and weather-proof electronics to Impulse's successor. The new plane will also be bigger and lighter, with a more advanced carbon fiber frame and more efficient batteries. Solar Impulse already has a wingspan of 69 yards.

The plane should have what it takes to make it across the continental United States. In 2010, Borschberg piloted the plane for 26 hours straight, proving that the energy it stored during the day could keep it flying through the night. In a few years, Solar Impulse may prove something else: That planes can fly around the entire world without burning an ounce of fuel.

Check out Popular Science's feature on Bertrand Piccard and Solar Impulse for more photos and technical information on the aircraft, and the Solar Impulse website for some awesome photos and videos of the plane.