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Meet Maxwell X-57, an electric plane that NASA takes seriously

nasa x  maxwell electric aircraft plane
NASA Langley/Advanced Concepts Lab, AMA, Inc.

Sooner than expected, NASA has gotten back in the game with X-Planes. The program starts with the X-57, a 14-motor, all-electric, 4-seat plane nicknamed Maxwell.

The U.S. Air Force gets to assign X-plane numbers. The X-1 was the first airplane to break the speed of sound, in 1947. Each of the X-planes since the X-1 has demonstrated an aviation advance. The X-57 is the first, and the smallest design, of as many as six X-planes that NASA will develop to show that all-electric power can operate at a lower fuel cost and lower sound levels than conventional aircraft engines, and with no carbon emissions.

Related: NASA is hoping to resurrect its experimental ‘X-Planes’ program in 2017

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said, “With the return of piloted X-planes to NASA’s research capabilities — which is a key part of our 10-year-long New Aviation Horizons initiative — the general aviation-sized X-57 will take the first step in opening a new era of aviation,”

The X-57 is based on an Italian-designed Tecnam P2006T twin-engine light aircraft. With a new wing design and 14 electric motors, the plane will be able to cruise at 175 miles an hour. At cruising altitude and speed the X-57 will operate at 20 percent of the fuel cost of conventional planes. Twelve of the motors, six to a side, will be on the leading edge of the wing and will assist on takeoff and landing, but one larger motor on each wing tip will be sufficient to maintain cruising speed. Part of the X-57’s demonstration principle will be the effect of spreading the work across multiple smaller motors for greater fuel efficiency.

The Maxwell gets its nickname in honor of James Clerk Maxwell, a 19th-century Scottish physicist whose original work in electromagnetism figured significantly in the understanding of modern physics. 

“The tradition of X-Planes has kept the United States in the forefront as the world leader in aircraft and aerospace development,” said Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate. “Planes like the X-57, and the others to come, will help us maintain that role.”