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NASA has built its first all-electric airplane, and now the X-57 is charged up for testing

By Jeff Spry

Up, up, and away! NASA is joining the new age of electricity by embracing their first all-electric airplane known as the X-57 Maxwell.

The space agency's primary goal for X-57 is to aid in developing certification standards and protocols for emerging electric aircraft markets as technology allows for more advanced designs. One of the main challenges of the X-57 program is to attain the goal of zero carbon emissions while in flight, a 500 percent increase in high-speed cruise efficiency, and real-life operational that are much easier on the ears for communities and citizens on the ground.

After last year's extensive wind tunnel testing at Langley Research Center's Low-Speed Aeroacoustic Wind Tunnel in Virginia, NASA's all-electric X-57 Maxwell is currently preparing for ground vibration testing (GVT) at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center in California.

This Modification 2 process is accomplished in tandem with cruise motor controller testing, and observing the electric vehicle at various vibration levels on the tarmac to assist engineers in validating the integrity of the plane for full flight conditions. 

x-57 2

When in its final flight configuration, called Modification 4, NASA will install 12 electric high-lift motors and propellers onto the top-mounted wing.

These innovative, next-generation propellers will deploy during low-speed flight, such as take-off and landing, then passively fold back when not in use to then avoid additional drag at higher cruising speeds. A pair of full-scale electric cruise motors, delivered by ESAero, will be powered up in this next critical development stage to make sure the vehicle’s propellers spin correctly.

Testing will occur at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California, where engineers will check startup and shutdown sequences and verify that the motor control software boots up and controls the engines as predicted. The event is an impressive five-year project milestone as NASA moves forward from the component design and prototype phase to actual operation of the X-57 as an integrated aircraft, a huge leap towards taxi tests and debut flight.

Modification 2 will conclude by throttling up the motors to maximum power, validating the aircraft's instrumentation system, and seeing that all the installed vehicle sensors are fully functional. 

“Many of the team members operating this test will be the same ones who will be sitting in the control room for flight, and that’s why I’m excited,” said Sean Clarke, NASA’s X-57 principal investigator. “We’ve turned a corner from system design and lab tests, to turning it over to the NASA flight systems and operations engineers to actually operate the vehicle. What they’re learning in this test, they’ll take with them into the control room for first flight.”

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