Artist Tomás Saraceno launched a solar air balloon above the Salinas Grandes salt flat in Jujuy, Argentina, achieving the world’s first manned sun-powered free flight. In a series of journeys between January 21 and 28, Saraceno’s balloon broke six records with the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) for altitude, distance, and duration in both the general and female categories, since its pilot Leticia Marques is a woman.
Titled “Fly with Aerocene Pacha” after the Incan concept of the cosmos, the project was presented as part of South Korean band BTS’s global public art initiative “CONNECT, BTS” and is tethered to Saraceno’s longstanding interest in the synthesis of art and environmental sustainability. Unlike traditional hot air balloons, which depend on carbon fossil fuel derivatives, Saraceno’s vessel is propelled solely by solar energy and air. The aerial sculpture invites humans to imagine alternative means of mobility that do not require burning fossil fuels, the primary cause of global warming and the climate emergency.
“‘Fly with Aerocene Pacha’ presents an achievable utopia and a challenge to us all to connect together and change our habits, not our climate,” said Saraceno in a press release.
The balloon, which absorbs ultraviolet rays to raise its temperature and ascend into the atmosphere, can lift up to 250 kg (~551 lb) and transport two human passengers. During a test flight on January 25, it broke altitude and duration records, rising to 272.1 meters (~893 feet) and floating for an hour and 21 minutes. On January 28, the balloon’s official launch date, it broke distance records by traversing 2.56 km (~1.59 miles). More than 500 people were present at Salinas Grandes to witness the flight, and around 28,000 tuned in to an online live stream.
“Aerocene Pacha” also aims to raise awareness of the different communities whose livelihoods are variously threatened by climate change. Salinas Grandes is known for its significant reserves of lithium, an ingredient in ostensibly eco-friendly smartphone and electric car batteries whose extraction can have disastrous results, including water contamination. Four groups representing 33 indigenous communities in the provinces of Jujuy and Salta — Tres Pozos, Pozo Colorado, San Miguel del Colorado, and Inti Killa de Tres Morros — attended the ceremony for “Aerocene Pacha” and defended the right to maintain their territories mining-free. Saraceno’s balloon read “El agua y la vida valen más que el litio” (“Water and life are worth more than lithium”).
Argentina belongs to the so-called “lithium triangle,” also comprising Chile and Bolivia, which holds more than half of the Earth’s lithium resources.
“Fifty years ago marked the first moon landing, achieved with the same patriarchal, nationalist and colonial ambitions that have depleted the world,” says a statement on Saraceno’s website. “This extractivist attitude is evidenced in the Salinas Grandes by the recent rush to mine lithium, furthering the man-made violence that incites climate change and mass extinction, the race to colonize space and disturbed balance of interconnected ecosystems.”
Saraceno is producing a series of films of the flight, and public screenings are being held at the Centro Cultural Kirchner (CCK) in Buenos Aires. The first screening took place on January 31; three more will follow on February 15, February 29, and March 14, presenting subsequent chapters of the film. Tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis at CCK’s website.