Nova: The Impossible Flight

Solar Impulse II adventure premieres tomorrow night.

Solar Impulse II
Nova’s PBS documentary about the Solar Impulse II aircraft airs on January 31.PBS

Critics thought flying a solar-powered aircraft around the world was impossible, but Nova’s PBS documentary premiering January 31 chronicles the successful adventure from beginning to end. The Solar Impulse II began its around-the-world flight on March 9, 2015, following 13 years of work by aerospace engineers, meteorologists and flight controllers who designed, built and flew the airplane. The aircraft carried no fuel, only an array of solar panels used to charge the on-board lithium-ion polymer batteries using the rays of the sun.

Carrying pilots Bertrand Piccard, an explorer and psychiatrist, and Andre Borschberg, an MIT engineer and former Swiss Air Force fighter pilot, Solar Impulse II took off from Abu Dhabi in the unpressurized, unheated aircraft on an adventure that demanded near-perfect weather along the entire route. In addition to completing the flight and returning to Abu Dhabi following 23 days of flying, the crew set a new world solo flight record for their longest stage length, five days of non-stop flight between Japan and Hawaii, a trek that destroyed the batteries and caused a lengthy delay.

Creating the aircraft was no small task, even when matched to the flight itself. The team used a number of ground-breaking technologies including ultrathin solar cells, high-capacity batteries and massive, but light carbon-fiber wings. The aircraft captured sunlight through 17,000 solar cells, each as thin as a human hair, and stored the energy in the batteries later used to power the Solar Impulse II's four 17-hp motors during hours of darkness.

The PBS show tomorrow night (check local listings),"puts viewers in the cockpit for the adventure of a lifetime," said Paula S. Aspell, Nova's senior executive producer.