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NASA is nearing the first test flight of its battery-powered aircraft, the X-57 Maxwell, a report from The Verge explains. NASA’s series of X planes are designed to push the limits of aircraft technology, whether it’s supersonic flight, green airliners, or all-electric aircraft.

The X-57 Maxwell was specifically designed to help NASA develop certifications standards for electric aircraft. It is the first manned X-plane from NASA in two decades. Other recent X-planes include the remotely-piloted X-49 and the “quiet” supersonic X-59, which is also approaching its first flight.

The X-57 Maxwell flight tests are aimed at reducing our reliance on fossil fuels

The development of the X-57 Maxwell started five years ago when a team of NASA engineers began converting an Italian Tecnam P2006T to run solely on battery power. The team recently began high-voltage functional ground testing at the Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California. The U.S. space agency said that the X-57 Maxwell’s maiden flight will take place in the spring of 2022.

In an interview with The Verge’s Andrew J. Hawkins, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said the aircraft is being developed with “the purpose of lessening our reliance on fossil fuels, less pollution, and keeping the cost reasonable.” 

NASA tests boost early all-electric aircraft designs

Once finished, the X-57, as seen in NASA’s concept images, will have thinner wings than your average aircraft. This is due to the fact that its configuration will have a slight similarity to the innovation showcased by eVTOL aircraft such as Lilium’s in-development flying taxi. Each wing will feature six electric motors with propellers to aid with lift and two larger engines at the end of the wings for cruising. When the 12 smaller motors are not in use, they can fold in to reduce drag and improve range. According to NASA, the X-57 will have a range of approximately 100 miles and a cruise speed of 172 mph (276 km/h), meaning it will be able to fly for approximately 40 minutes at a time.

The X-57 Maxwell is NASA’s first demonstrator of an all-electric aircraft. Source: NASA Langley/Advanced Concepts Lab, AMA, Inc

If anything, NASA’s experimental aircraft serves to highlight the current limitations on battery-powered aircraft. Though electric cars are on track to fully replace internal combustion engine vehicles in the coming decades, the power required for an aircraft to take off as well as the weight of the large batteries required for air travel currently means that electric aircraft are far from replacing traditional long-haul airliners.

That’s why many firms, such as carbon transformation company Twelve, are turning to drop-in e-fuels, that have the potential to power existing aircraft at the same time as reducing emissions. Still, NASA is developing the X-57 Maxwell with an eye on the future of electric aircraft. Its aim is to improve the technology behind electric aircraft and release its findings into the wild so that public firms and the flying public can benefit. The agency said it will test the all-electric aircraft next year before building a hybrid version to squeeze a little more range out of its design while still lowering carbon emissions.

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