These days NASA is not only preoccupied with the research and development of spacecraft – the agency is set on exploring electric propulsion technology for general aviation aircraft. NASA recently received its first all-electric X-plane: known as X-57 Maxwell Mod II, it is the agency’s first all-electric experimental aircraft and the first crewed X-plane in two decades. With the X-57, NASA aims to set industry standards for the growing electric aircraft market.

The X-57 Maxwell was delivered to NASA on October 2, 2019, by its prime contractor Empirical Systems Aerospace (ESAero) at the agency’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California. The rolled-out X-57 comes in the first of three configurations as an all-electric aircraft, known as Modification II, or Mod II.

The X-57’s Mod II is designed to replace traditional combustion engines on a baseline Italian Tecnam P2006T light aircraft, with electric cruise motors. The propulsions system powering the Maxwell weighs approximately 3,000 pounds, including with its 860 -pound lithium-ion batteries. The aircraft can reach a cruising speed of 172 miles per hour at 8,000 feet, Popular Mechanics writes.

Referring to the delivery as a “major milestone”, NASA will now start putting the aircraft through ground tests, to be followed by taxi tests and eventually flight tests. The agency is aiming to use the X-57 to advance the design and airworthiness process for distributed electric propulsion technology for general aviation aircraft.

"The X-57 Mod II aircraft delivery to NASA is a significant event, marking the beginning of a new phase in this exciting electric X-plane project,” X-57 Project Manager Tom Rigney said in a statement. “With the aircraft in our possession, the X-57 team will soon conduct extensive ground testing of the integrated electric propulsion system to ensure the aircraft is airworthy. We plan to rapidly share valuable lessons learned along the way as we progress toward flight testing, helping to inform the growing electric aircraft market”.

With the project, that has been in development since 2016, NASA wants to jump ahead of the curve and develop certification standards for the rapidly growing flying electric vehicles market, most notably urban mobility vehicles (UAMs).

NASA’s engineers are already preparing for the project’s following phases, Mod III and IV, which will focus on energy efficiency, featuring a high-aspect ratio wing, compared to the wider, standard wing from the Mod II phase. Late in September 2019, the agency successfully completed loads testing on the new wing that will be integrated into the final configuration of the piloted experimental aircraft at NASA Armstrong’s Flight Loads Laboratory.

“ESAero is thrilled to be delivering the MOD II X-57 Maxwell to NASA AFRC,” said ESAero President and CEO Andrew Gibson in the statement. “In this revolutionary time, the experience and lessons learned, from early requirements to current standards development, has the X-57 paving the way. This milestone, along with receiving the successfully load-tested MOD III wing back, will enable NASA, ESAero and the small business team to accelerate and lead electric air vehicle distributed propulsion development on the MOD III and MOD IV configurations with integration at our facilities in San Luis Obispo”.

The X-57 Mod II is a “design driver” meant to spur lessons learned and best practices in the development of electric aircraft. According to NASA, this design driver includes a 500% increase in high-speed cruise efficiency, zero in-flight carbon emissions, and quieter flight for communities on the ground.

 

NASA’s X-planes are experimental aircraft that the agency uses to test a variety of technologies, and has been doing so for several decades. One of the experimental aircraft developed by the agency was the Bell X-1, a rocket-engine powered aircraft, which became the first plane to break the sound barrier in flight. On October 14, 1947, U.S. Air Force Captain Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager flew the X-1 reaching a speed of 700 miles (1,127 kilometers) per hour, or Mach 1.06, at an altitude of 43,000 feet (13,000 meters).

One of the most notable projects recently, is NASA’s Low-boom Flight Demonstration Mission, aimed at designing and building a large-scale supersonic X-plane with technology that reduces the loudness of a sonic boom. NASA aims to fly the X-plane over select U.S. communities to gather data on residents’ responses to the low-boom flights. The data will be delivered to U.S. and international regulators in an effort to loosen civil supersonic flight restrictions over land.

 
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NASA is working to build its first piloted supersonic X-plane in decades – the Low-Boom Flight Demonstration aircraft.