NASA Reveals Their Experimental New All-Electric X-Plane Prototype

Tuesday, 12 November 2019 - 10:07AM
Tuesday, 12 November 2019 - 10:07AM
NASA Reveals Their Experimental New All-Electric X-Plane Prototype
< >
NASA/Lauren Hughes/Monroe Conner

NASA pulled back the curtain on its latest X-plane, an experimental class of aircraft used for testing new technologies and groundbreaking aerodynamics.

The X-57 prototype – nicknamed "Maxwell" – is designed based on an Italian Tecnam P2006T plane, which basically means NASA modded out a twin-prop until it was no longer street legal. Teams stationed all over the United States – including five official NASA headquarters – worked together to create this buzzy new prototype.

The X-57 runs on electricity, with 12 small electric motors running six apiece per wing, and one larger motor at each wingtip. Design Week UK says these motors have fewer components than traditional jet engines, which makes them both lightweight and easy to maintain.

NASA says the benefit of electric motors – in addition to reducing CO2 emissions – is that they can be mounted anywhere on the plane to improve performance. These little motors also increase airflow, making it possible to lift off at technically slower speeds. These motors are powered by two, 400-lb. rechargeable lithium-ion batteries located in the cabin.

The X-57 has been prototyped with an aim to reduce fuel and operation costs while cutting down on noise and decreasing air travel's immense carbon footprint. They're seeking governmental approval for commercial airlines, and Design Week UK points out that this smaller prototype follows in the footsteps of private companies like Boeing and Uber who are already exploring small, lightweight "air taxis."

This isn't the first X-plane ever built, either. The Bell X-1, nicknamed "Glamorous Glennis," became the first plane to fly faster than the speed of sound in 1947. The X-15 is another famous prototype, which Neil Armstrong flew as a Navy pilot before he set his sights on becoming an astronaut.

Although the X-57 might not be as imposing as something built to launch from a B-52 bomber, it is the latest in a storied dynasty of small steps and giant leaps that over time have fundamentally shaped what is possible – and what could be possible – in air and space. Watch the X-57 flight simulation below: