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Solar Impulse 2 plane
The Solar Impulse 2 plane heads toward its landing in Abu Dhabi. (Credit: Solar Impulse)

Solar Impulse’s history-making 22,000-mile flight around the world ended tonight with a solar-powered landing in the dark in Abu Dhabi, where it all began more than 16 months ago.

After two straight days of flying, Swiss psychiatrist-adventurer Bertrand Piccard aced the landing at Al Bateen Executive Airport just after 4 a.m. local time Tuesday (5 p.m. PT Monday), The touchdown marked the conclusion of the first-ever round-the-world journey completed by a solar-powered airplane..

“We made it!” Piccard told the cheering crowd on the runway just after landing.

Prince Albert of Monaco, one of Solar Impulse’s biggest backers, joined other dignitaries, scores of well-wishers and a bagpipe band at the finish-line celebration.

Piccard and Solar Impulse’s other pilot and co-founder, Andre Borschberg, organized the $170 million sponsor-funded effort to show off clean technologies – and potentially blaze a trail for fuel-free solar electric aviation.

“The future is clean. The future is you. The future is now. Let’s take it further,” Piccard told the crowd.

Piccard and Borschberg set the stage for the adventure in 2013 by flying across America in a smaller, somewhat less capable plane. This time around, Solar Impulse 2 was equipped with more than 17,000 solar cells and 8,000 pounds of advanced lithium polymer batteries that could keep it flying day and night as long as the skies were sunny.

The plane’s wingspan is wider than that of a Boeing 747 jet, but it weighs no more than a minivan (5,000 pounds). There was one big limitation: Because the fuel-free plane’s only propulsion is provided by four scooter-sized electric motors, it could travel no faster than a minivan as it flew.

Borschberg and Piccard alternated the piloting duties in the solo cockpit. The trek, which was broken up into 17 legs, posed psychological as well as technological challenges. The pilots had to eat, sleep and do everything else that needed to be done in a glorified closet for as long as five days straight.

The odyssey began in Abu Dhabi in March of last year, and featured stopovers in Oman, India, Myanmar, China and Japan. During the five-day trip from Japan to Hawaii, the batteries overheated. That forced the pilots and the rest of the team to put the adventure on hold for nine months while they made repairs and waited for the return of acceptable weather.

This April, the journey resumed in Hawaii. Solar Impulse 2 made good time flying to California, then Arizona, Oklahoma, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. Piccard took on the Atlantic crossing to Spain, and this month Borschberg took his last turn with the flight from Seville to Cairo.

Tonight’s end of the round-the-world circuit won’t spell the end of the adventure. Piccard and Borschberg say they’re establishing a non-governmental organization called the International Committee of Clean Technology to build upon Solar Impulse’s legacy.

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