Watch NASA test the propellers of its all-electric X-57 plane in a wind tunnel

While the mention of NASA more often than not conjures up images of space and astronauts, the agency also works on projects that focus on matters a little closer to terra firma.

Take the all-electric X-57 Maxwell aircraft. NASA has been developing the small plane for the last four years with the aim of creating a flying machine that’s efficient, quiet, and less harmful to the environment than conventional aircraft.

Components of its latest prototype recently underwent wind tunnel testing at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

Aimed at gathering operational and performance data in various flight conditions, the tests used two full-scale propeller assemblies provided by Empirical Systems Aerospace (ESAero) of San Luis Obispo, California.

NASA said it will install 12 of these electric high-lift motors and propellers in the final configuration of the X-57, called Modification IV, or Mod IV.

The wind tunnel tests took place over a period of a couple of weeks, with the hardware exposed to wind speeds of up to 90 knots during a total of 14 hours of powered propeller operation.

As you can see in the computer animation at the top, the aircraft takes off and lands using six sets of motor-powered propellers on each wing, as well as two larger motors located at the very end of each wing.

To boost flight efficiency, the blades on the 12 smaller propellers are stowed to eliminate drag once the aircraft reaches its cruising speed of 175 mph, with the two larger motors alone providing enough power to maintain flight.

“NASA’s primary goal for X-57 is to share the electric-propulsion design, lessons learned, and airworthiness process with regulators, as new electric aircraft markets begin to emerge,” the agency said on its website.

There are indeed a growing number of companies developing small electric aircraft, many of them eyeing so-called “flying taxi” services for urban transportation.

As for NASA, it’s been working on its experimental X-planes and rockets for more than 70 years as part of efforts to research new technologies and aerodynamic concepts.

NASA’s X-57 plane was named Maxwell in honor of James Clerk Maxwell, a 19th-century Scottish physicist who became known for his pioneering work in electromagnetism.

The aircraft is yet to take the skies, but NASA is aiming to fly it for the first time in the next 12 months.

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