NASA is Bringing Innovation and Electrification to the X-57!
Updated: Aug 9, 2022
NASA's First Electric Aircraft!
NASA is bringing electricity to its long line of storied “X” vessels with the Maxwell X-57. I say “vessels" because this storied aircraft list included planes and rockets. The purpose of making the X-57 electric is multi-faceted, starting with the fact it is cleaner, quieter, and more sustainable.
The “X” series of vessels has a long and storied history starting with the X-1 aircraft being the first to break the speed of sound at Mach 1 and flown by the legend “Chuck Yeager.”
Since the supersonic X-1, these crafts have surpassed hypersonic status (Mach 5 or above). While speed is very much at the top of most manufacturers’ lists, clean, quiet, and sustainable are at the top of the X-57 list.
How will the X-57 be built?
NASA details that:
An Italian Tecnam P2006T aircraft will be modified with an electric propulsion system. NASA will compare data from the Tecnam to the X-57 to measure efficiency.
At this point, the Tecnam will undergo four particular modifications, with the first focus being on electrical propulsion. LEAPtech, or The Leading Edge Asynchronous Propeller Technology, will be performed to test the viability of electricity for efficiency and safety in future NASA air vessels. Modification number two includes ground and flight tests, with attention paid to the electric motors, batteries, and instrumentation in this stage.
Modification three will entail a new wing design to accommodate repositioning two new wingtip cruise engines (pictured).
The final modification stage will be flight tests that include all fourteen motors. The two larger electric cruise motors already tested in the previous step, along with the integrated 12 smaller high-lift motors (Pictured)
Using so many smaller motors is vital as the bulk of the power is needed to get the aircraft airborne at low speeds. Once the required altitude is achieved, these motors will turn off, and the propellers will retract to reduce unnecessary drag. The larger cruise engines will provide the forward propulsion needed until the approach for landing. At this point, the high-lift motors will be re-engaged to complete a safe landing.
One of the X-57’s main goals is achieving zero emissions; using lithium-ion batteries will help it achieve this. As an additional bonus, the amount of noise will be significantly reduced because the X-57 doesn’t use a combustion engine. Typically electric motors are 90% efficient as most of the energy is used. Regular combustion engines are 30% efficient, with energy wasted in friction and high heat created by moving parts. With electric, moving parts are eliminated while significantly reducing maintenance costs. Wear and tear are less existent.
It’s an exciting time in vehicle design and innovation. I, for one, am happy NASA is bringing some of this technology to Earth rather than to space!
Aircraft Weight — Approximately 3,000 pounds.
Maximum Operational Altitude — 14,000 feet.
Cruise Speed — 172 mph (at 8,000 feet)
Critical Takeoff Speed — 58 knots (67 mph).
69.1 kilowatt hours (47 kilowatt hours usable)
Cruise Motors and Propellers (2)
5-foot diameter propeller.
Out-runner, 14-inch diameter.
117 pounds each, combined weight.
High-Lift Motors and Propellers (12)
5-blade, folding propeller.
1.9 foot diameter propeller.
15 pounds each, combined weight.