NASA announced last Thursday that its all-electric aircraft project will be shutting down later this year after years of research and development. The program will conclude without any flights of the X-57 Maxwell aircraft; however, the agency still considers the program a success with plenty of lessons learned.
According to the space agency, the X-57 aircraft program will conclude operations in September 2023 after several years of work modifying old technologies and testing new ones to enable the plane to fly. The program ran into several safety issues for flying the aircraft and NASA does not see a way forward to fix the programs, while remaining in budget. While the operations will cease, researchers will continue working for several months to close out white papers on the lessons learned throughout the entire program.
The X-57 was designed to help achieve the goal of net-zero greenhouse emissions from the US aviation sector by 2050. Although the plane would never be more than an experiment, its purpose was to drive innovation and research in the field, bringing the industry closer to that objective. In that sense, it fulfilled its role, even without taking flight.
The X-57 Maxwell is a modified Tecnam P2006T aircraft that has had its piston-driven engines replaced with two electrically powered motors. However, this was not the final form of the aircraft.
Various wing designs and numbers of electric motors were tested, and the final form would have featured 14 engines distributed across the entire wing: two larger engines on the wing edges and 12 smaller ones across the rest of it.
This design provided the X-57 with greater thrust for its smaller wingspan and made it significantly quieter. Each motor would have been individually powered, enhancing flight stability during wind gusts and improving overall efficiency.
While the X-57 inspired hope and dreams of a future where all air travel is electrically powered, this is not the end. NASA continues to research this technology in electric vertical takeoff and landing systems (eVTOLs) and other electric aircraft propulsion programs.
Although NASA is often seen as solely a space agency, it originated from NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aviation, and many of its endeavors continue to this day.
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