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K-Pop Band BTS and Artist Tomás Saraceno Launch Solar-Powered 'Sculpture'

Sam Gaskin
Buenos Aires
3 February 2020

The record-setting balloon flight sought to draw attention to climate change and the potential of renewable energy sources.

Tomás Saraceno, Fly with Aerocene Pacha: Tomás Saraceno for Aerocene (2020). Courtesy the artist and Aerocene Foundation. Photo: Studio Tomás Saraceno, 2020. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 by Aerocene Foundation.

On January 28, hundreds of people gathered on Argentina's Salinas Grandes salt flats to watch pilot Leticia Marquès ascend in a hot-air balloon powered solely by the sun. Another 28,000 watched a live stream of her flight on YouTube, commenting mostly in Spanish, Korean and English.

The project, entitled Aerocene Pacha, was conceived by Argentine artist-adventurer Tomás Saraceno and backed by K-pop band BTS's CONNECT art initiative. Saraceno describes the balloon as a 'sculpture'.

During its 37 minute-flight, the balloon reached an altitude of 176m and traveled 2.56km. Earlier in the week, it flew up to a maximum height of 272.1m and for a maximum duration of 1 hour and 21 minutes. In total, it set six records for solar-powered balloon flight, pending confirmation by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.

Unlike traditional hot-air balloons, Aerocene Pacha is not powered by a propane-gas burner. The black, ultra-thin balloon is instead filled with air using pedal-powered fans. It gains lift when its ultra-light black envelope—the fabric pocket that fills with air—absorbs heat from the sun. Flying over the white salt flats, more of the sun's light is reflected onto the balloon, creating additional lift.

'Now, for the first time in human history, we have flown a person into the air, using only the power of the sun and the air we all breathe—free of fossil fuels, solar panels, batteries, or helium,' said Saraceno, who now lives in Berlin. 'We see this as the first step into a new epoch named [the] Aerocene.'

Saraceno's low-impact epoch would succeed what's become known as the Anthropocene, in which human pollution has become the defining geological impact. The second part of the art project's name, Pacha, comes from the Andean concept of the cosmos.

In promoting the work, Saraceno acknowledged 33 communities indigenous to the region whose drinking water has been contaminated in the 'green rush' to mine lithium used in rechargeable batteries.

Traditional hot air balloons fly for about an hour before running out of the standard 136 litres of fuel. In theory, Saraceno's solar-powered balloon could fly from dawn till dusk. The artist now has plans to embark on a continuous around-the-world balloon flight using a semi-transparent silver envelope to trap solar power during the day and retain it at night.

Saraceno has previously exhibited at events and institutions including the Venice Biennale (2019), the Palais de Tokyo (2018), the Grand Palais (2015) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2012). He is a recipient of the Alexander Calder Prize (2009).

A film about Aerocene Pacha is showing at Centro Cultural Kirchner, Buenos Aires, until 22 March. —[O]

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