NASA’s first fully electric plane, the X-57 Maxwell, is gearing up for flight after its cruise motor controllers successfully passed critical testing.

The X-57 project is part of NASA’s early efforts to develop sustainable aviation solutions as the agency’s first all-experimental electric aircraft.

The fully electric plane has been developing for several years now and is finally about to take flight. In December 2017, NASA Engineers successfully tested the X-57 battery system, validating it had the required capacity to safely power an entire flight profile.

After several configurations, the X-57, in its final form, features two larger electric cruise motors (60 kW) and 12 smaller electric high-lift motors (10.5 kW) along the front edge of the wings. The e-motors are specifically designed to generate enough power to take off at standard Tecnam P20006T speeds.

To get the X-57 plane airborne, the high lift motors and propels activate, along with the wingtip cruise motors. After the plane levels out to cruise, the high lift motors reactive, and five propeller blades from each motor will stop rotating and fold away to avoid drag.

NASA has three goals it wants to achieve with its electric plane, including:

  • Zero in-flight carbon emissions
  • A 500% increase in high-speed cruise efficiency
  • A quieter environment for those of us on the ground

The X-57 features two 400 lb air-cooled lithium-ion battery packs supplying 69.1 kWh energy (47 kWh usable).

NASA took a massive step toward the X-57 Maxwell’s first flight this week after passing a critical thermal test.

NASA’s first electric plane is almost ready for flight

In a press release, NASA said it has passed a critical milestone as the cruise motors on the X-57 Maxwell electric plane have successfully passed thermal testing.

The controllers were tested at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Clevland under temperatures from minus 11 to 147 degrees Fahrenheit.

As the cruise motors power the propellers, the system must be able to withstand extreme weather conditions during flight. The controllers deliver 98% efficiency during high-power take-off and cruise settings using silicon carbide transistors. In other words, they don’t generate excessive heat and can be cooled by air flowing through the motor.

With thermal testing complete, NASA’s electric plane is one step closer to flight. An incoming flight readiness review will be the next step at the agency’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California.

NASA has big ambitions for its first electric airplane, stating:

The design driver for X-57 will also seek to reach the goal of zero carbon emissions in flight, which would surpass the 2035 N+3 efficiency goals. Electric propulsion provides not only a five-to-ten times reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, but it also provides a technology path for aircraft to eliminate 100 Low Lead AvGas, which is the leading contributor to current lead environmental emissions.

In addition, the agency adds, the electric plane can run on renewable energy, making it the clear environmental and economical choice.

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