X-57 Electric Propulsion Aircraft Being Assembled

Aeronautic engineers and technicians reach milestone in development of all-electric propulsion system

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The Italian Tecnam aircraft fuselage, P2006T, arrived in California and will be integrated with the wing for electric propulsion becoming X-57, or Maxwell. Credits: NASA Photo / Ken Ulbrich

Space news (New space technology: new space propulsion systems; SCEPTOR) – Armstrong Flight Research Center and Langley Research Center –

Traveling across the solar system using present space propulsion technology is going to be very time-consuming and costly in terms of the extra weight requirements for chemical propulsion systems. In order to enable future trips to distant bodies in our host solar system. NASA scientists and engineers of the Scalable Convergent Electric Propulsion Technology and Operations Research (SCEPTOR), under the management and direction of the Transformative Aeronautics Concepts Program, are working on the first all-electric propulsion aircraft.  

The Tecnam P2006T cockpit for the X-57, or Maxwell, will be the first all electric propulsion aircraft once the plane and wing integration is complete. Credits: NASA Photo / Ken Ulbrich
The Tecnam P2006T cockpit for the X-57, or Maxwell, will be the first all electric propulsion aircraft once the plane and wing integration is complete.
Credits: NASA Photo / Ken Ulbrich

Called the X-57 (Maxwell), the first all-electric propulsion aircraft will be the first in a series of scaled up models. During the next phase of the project, they expect to install the flight system and begin test flights. An important milestone on the road to designing propulsion systems capable of taking us across the solar system in a reasonable amount of time.

Preparations are underway to inspect, weigh and balance the Tecnam fuselage before it heads to Mojave, California, for wing integration. Credits: NASA Photo / Ken Ulbrich
Preparations are underway to inspect, weigh and balance the Tecnam fuselage before it heads to Mojave, California, for wing integration.
Credits: NASA Photo / Ken Ulbrich

“I am very excited that NASA Aeronautics has started the Convergent Aeronautic Solutions project where cross-center teams can propose revolutionary ideas that if feasible, can graduate that new technology into one of the mainstream aeronautics projects for further research and validation,” stated NASA Armstrong Deputy Aeronautics Research Director Starr Ginn

This artist's concept of NASA's X-57 Maxwell aircraft shows the plane's specially designed wing and 14 electric motors. NASA Aeronautics researchers will use the Maxwell to demonstrate that electric propulsion can make planes quieter, more efficient and more environmentally friendly. Credits: NASA Langley/Advanced Concepts Lab, AMA, Inc.
This artist’s concept of NASA’s X-57 Maxwell aircraft shows the plane’s specially designed wing and 14 electric motors. NASA Aeronautics researchers will use the Maxwell to demonstrate that electric propulsion can make planes quieter, more efficient and more environmentally friendly.
Credits: NASA Langley/Advanced Concepts Lab, AMA, Inc.

“Unboxing the airplane today was an exciting milestone for those of us who have been advocating for several years the need to design, build and fly an electric airplane, and understand the system integration challenges, technology gaps and showcase a new area of vehicle design space with distributed electric propulsion.” 

This artist's concept of NASA's X-57 Maxwell aircraft shows the plane's specially designed wing and 14 electric motors. NASA Aeronautics researchers will use the Maxwell to demonstrate that electric propulsion can make planes quieter, more efficient and more environmentally friendly. Credits: NASA Langley/Advanced Concepts Lab, AMA, Inc.
This artist’s concept of NASA’s X-57 Maxwell aircraft shows the plane’s specially designed wing and 14 electric motors. NASA Aeronautics researchers will use the Maxwell to demonstrate that electric propulsion can make planes quieter, more efficient and more environmentally friendly.
Credits: NASA Langley/Advanced Concepts Lab, AMA, Inc.

The fuselage for the new aircraft an Italian Tecnam P2006T left Naples, Italy and arrived at Empirical Systems Aerospace’s facility at Oceano Airport in California (ESAero). Eager engineers from NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center and Langley Research Center were on hand to inspect the fuselage for the first all-electric propulsion aircraft. Watch this video of its arrival.

“We’re all really excited. We get to see in person what we’ve been modeling for so long,” said Sean Clarke, principal investigator for the X-57 project out of NASA Armstrong. “We’ve been looking forward to this for years now, so there’s been a lot of anticipation, and to have it out here in front of us is a relief.” 

The equipment required for an electric propulsion test is ready for research. April 5, 2016 NASA Photo / Lauren Hughes
The equipment required for an electric propulsion test is ready for research.
April 5, 2016
NASA Photo / Lauren Hughes

Engineers working on the X-57 project completely inspected the fuselage, including testing its weight and balance. Technicians and engineers verified all modifications were made to the design during the fabrication process. This is necessary for the successful integration of the electric propulsion system into the existing infrastructure of the fuselage.  

“I’ve never worked on a NASA X-plane before, this is a very exciting experience for me,” Foster said “It has become very real for everyone to actually have some hardware to touch. Everything up until now has been on paper and photographs, so everyone is very excited, and looking forward to the next several years.” 

The electric propulsion system to be tested is secured at the top of the Airvolt test stand and instrumented to collect data. Credits: NASA Photo / Lauren Hughes
The electric propulsion system to be tested is secured at the top of the Airvolt test stand and instrumented to collect data.
Credits: NASA Photo / Lauren Hughes

After all inspections by engineers and scientists are finished, NASA’s future X-57 Maxwell’s scheduled to be sent to SCEPTOR in Mojave, California, where it will be housed during its modification into the first fully electric aircraft. The engineering team will verify the safety and operation of the aircraft’s all-electric power system and two electric cruise motors planned for the wing tips before the new high-aspect ratio wing’s integrated into the design. In the final design, twelve smaller electric propellers along the new wing’s leading edge will provide lift during take-off and landing, while the two electric cruise motors are used during flight.  

The experimental, high-aspect ratio wing designed at NASA Langley in Virginia, and fabricated by Xperimental LLC in San Luis Obispo, California will be integrated into the fuselage after final inspections are complete. The battery system used to power the future X-57 Maxwell was designed and developed by Electric Power Systems in California. 

During this phase in the development of NASA’s first all-electric, next generation propulsion system engineers and scientists will assess and reduce risks in the final design of NASA’s future X-57 Maxwell. This includes installing the two electric cruise motors, which are being designed and developed by Joby Aviation in Santa Cruz, California. If all goes as planned with the integration and testing of the aircraft’s all-electric power system, scientists and engineers will begin ground tests to analyze all flight systems. Culminating in flight tests for this first model sometime in the spring of 2018, if all goes well with the development and tests. 

Up, up and away!

Successful flight tests of this model of NASA’s X-57 Maxwell will be just one step in designing and developing the propulsion systems we’ll need to travel further into the solar system and one day colonize the Red Planet. The first electric propulsion system for the human journey to the beginning of space and time. Hopefully, leading to the development of propulsion systems capable of taking mankind to the stars and beyond. The X-57 Maxwell gets us one step closer to dancing among the stars. 

You can learn more about Scalable Convergent Electric Propulsion Technology and Operations Research (SCEPTOR) project. 

Take the space journey of NASA here

Learn about NASA’s Transformative Aeronautics Concepts Program

Learn more about NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate’s New Aviation Horizons initiative here

Learn more about NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center

Learn more about NASA’s Langley Research Center here.

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