“Fly with Aerocene Pacha,” Tomás Saraceno for Aerocene, 21-28 January 2020, Salinas Grandes, Jujuy, Argentina.
Human Solar Free Flight as part of Connect, BTS, curated by DaeHyung Lee (all images courtesy the artist and Aerocene Foundation; photography by Studio Tomás Saraceno, 2020; licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 by Aerocene Foundation)

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,” Tomás Saraceno for Aerocene, 21-28 January 2020, Salinas Grandes, Jujuy, Argentina.
Human Solar Free Flight as part of Connect, BTS, curated by DaeHyung Lee.

“‘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.

Four groups representing 33 indigenous communities were invited to the “Aerocene Pacha” launch site.

“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.

“Fly with Aerocene Pacha” began with a native ritual for Pachamama (World Mother) performed by the four indigenous communities of Salinas Grandes, Jujuy, Argentina.

“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.

Valentina Di Liscia is the News Editor at Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...

One reply on “Artist Tomás Saraceno Launches a Fuel-Free Solar Air Balloon, Breaking World Records”

  1. The writer makes blatantly false claims in this article. It is not anywhere near “the first time a human has flown without the use of any fossil fuels, only air and sun.” The aircraft in this article is made of nylon or polyester– which is made from fossil fuels. In no way is this even the first manned solar balloon flight. In 1973 Tracy Barnes flew the “Solar Firefly” in manned flight — 46 years before the flights the author writes about. Then, there was Julian Nott with the ‘Nazca’ balloon in the 1970’s, and his solar balloon crossing of the English Channel in 1981. This says nothing of the smoke balloonists—who also flew without burning a fossil fuel. In terms of manned flight without burning a fossil fuel, soaring aircraft—like gliders– fly on thermals created by the sun shining on the surface of the earth, or ridge lift, etc.. Ridiculous for the author to claim this is the first manned solar balloon, let alone the first manned flight without using burning a fossil fuel; it literally happens every day with soaring aircraft. The poorly written article takes away from a very cool modern solar balloon; respect to the flight project. Shame on the author for mangling the story.

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