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Solar-Powered Airplane Flies A Record 24 Hours

WATCH: On July 7, a solar-powered airplane lifted off at 6:51 a.m. from Payerne Airbase in Switzerland, powered by four electric motors and consisting of carbon fiber. During the 24-hour flight, the plane switched to batteries at night, flying at a lower altitude (Reuters video).

Applause, cheers, and a feeling of disbelief as a solar plane achieved today what previously seemed impossible.

The plane, the Swiss-built "Solar Impulse," flew through the night powered solely by the electricity it stored during the day.

By the time it landed this morning at an airfield near Bern, the single-person plane had been in the air more than 24 hours -- running entirely on the sun's energy.

Team chief Bertrand Piccard may have expressed the significance of the achievement best. "Nothing can prevent us from another day and night...and the myth of perpetual flight," he told reporters at Payerne airfield in Switzerland.

The pilot, Andre Borschberg, stayed awake through the night, prepared to attempt a night landing if power began to fail.

"It was unbelievable, unbelievable -- success better than what we expected," Borschberg described his journey after landing in Payerne.

"We almost thought to make it longer but we said, 'No'. We demonstrated what we wanted to demonstrate so they made me come back, so here I am but it was gorgeous."

Massive Wingspan

To achieve the first, the Swiss team constructed a plane that weighs about the same as an average family car but has a wingspan equivalent to that of a commercial Airbus.

The giant wingspan, 63 meters from tip to tip, allows the plane to carry 12,000 solar cells.

That is enough not only to generate power for the plane's four propeller motors but also store extra electricity in batteries for flying at night.

When dawn broke over the Alps today, the "Solar Impulse" was not only still aloft but had enough power in its batteries for an additional three hours of flight.

The solar-powered plane is still entirely experimental and currently of no practical use.

But the fact that it has proved for the first time that a solar-powered aircraft can operate around-the-clock opens the way for designing future airplanes that could carry heavier loads over vast distances without refueling.

The Swiss team's next goal for their experimental craft is to perfect it to the point it can fly around the world in five stages in 2013.

The team's members have brought a wealth of aeronautic experience to the project, which is privately funded.

Team chief Piccard is already famous for heading the first round-the-world balloon flight in 1999.

The flight director for the project is Switzerland's first space shuttle astronaut, Claude Nicollier.

compiled from agency reports