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Solar Impulse 2 heading for Hawaii in critical 6-day sun-powered flight

[UPDATE: Deteriorating weather over the Pacific has forced Solar Impulse 2 to divert to Nagoya in Japan, with the plane expected to land on Monday at around 8am ET.]

Solar Impulse 2 is heading to Hawaii from China on a flight that’s expected to take the sun-powered aircraft at least six days to complete.

Aiming to become the first aircraft to fly around the world without using a single drop of fuel, the international team behind Solar Impulse 2 launched the specially designed plane in Abu Dhabi in March.

The seventh leg of the epic 12-stage journey takes propeller-driven Solar Impulse 2 from Nanjing in China to Hawaii and, at 5,200 miles (8,350 km), is the longest flight yet for the zero-fuel machine. It’s also the first time it’s having to rely on its sun-powered batteries – for its night flights – with power stored during daylight hours.

Pilot Andre Borschberg, 62, took off from Nanjing on Saturday and is tasked with guiding the aircraft over the Pacific, taking it to heights of up to 8,500 meters (28,000 feet).

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The ambitious project, which in its entirety will take around 500 hours of flying time, aims to promote the benefits of clean technologies and renewable energies, said Bertrand Piccard, Borschberg’s partner who flies Solar Impulse 2 on some of the other legs.

Spare a thought for Borschberg, though. For nearly a week he’s going to be stuck inside a cockpit just 3.8 cubic meters in size.

Having to constantly monitor the aircraft’s flight instruments means he can only 20-minute naps here and there. And do you really want to know about the procedure when nature calls? (Course you do). Well, let’s just say that the cockpit seat doubles as a toilet.

Besides plenty of food and water to last the journey, the Swiss pilot also has a parachute and a life raft in case of an extreme event.

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The wingspan of Solar Impulse 2 is, at 72 meters (236 feet), wider than that of a Boeing 747. Spread over its wings are more than 17,000 solar cells, which power four electric motors to keep the 2,300-kg machine in the air.

“The airplane is special not because it’s solar, but because it’s efficient,” Piccard told National Geographic recently. “It is efficient at harnessing energy, at storing energy, and at using energy.”

It’s hoped that many of the technologies developed during the Solar Impulse project can be “implemented in daily life, for cars, or for heating systems or for the construction of houses,” the Swiss pilot said, adding, “All the technology exists, we should use it much more in our daily life.”

To keep up to date with Solar Impulse 2’s progress as it heads toward Hawaii, check out the team’s website, or its Twitter feed here.