The latest experimental aircraft in NASA’s famed X-plane program is edging closer to its debut flight.
More than 70 years after the X-1 first broke the sound barrier, the space agency last week showcased the X-57 at its research facility in California.
Instead of setting new speed records, however, NASA hopes the aircraft, named “Maxwell,” will take another step toward practical electric aviation. The X-57 program began in 2015, but was generally known to the public only through artist renderings or photos of a project still deep in the development phase.
In the fourth and final planned modification in the project, NASA engineers are outfitting a twin-engine propeller plane made by Italy’s Tecnam Aircraft with 14 electric motors powered by custom lithium-ion batteries. With the largest two motors now attached to the plane, NASA opened the doors of its facility at Edwards Air Force Base to give reporters from Reuters a look.
The agency also developed a flight simulator to help engineers and pilots acclimate to what the X-57 might feel like. Although many private aerospace companies are working on electric projects — with some already taking to the air — NASA reportedly wants the X-57 initiative to develop electric technology that can help larger manufacturers meet strict government aviation standards.
Like other electric aviation projects, the X-57 is constrained by the limits of battery technology, which means it will likely be limited to smaller plans or shorter flights.
Officials said the aircraft, the first crewed X-plane in some 20 years, is expected to make its debut flight late next year.