X-57 Maxwell scrapped: NASA's X-plane will never make its first flight

Safety concerns and resource limitations behind the conclusion of the project that saw many achievements thus far.
Ameya Paleja
Artist's rendering of the X-57 Maxwell aircraft
Artist's rendering of the X-57 Maxwell aircraft

NASA/ Wikimedia Commons 

NASA has decided to conclude all operational activities for its all-electric X-57 airplane by September 2023, the space agency said in a press release. After years of delays, the experimental plane was scheduled for its first flight this year but will now be scrapped without ever taking to the skies.

X-plane is the terminology that NASA uses for revolutionary plane designs that test newer technologies to further the aviation field. This status can be conferred on both military as well as civilian aircraft, but the plane itself never serves as a prototype for commercial production. Instead, technology developed during the project is adapted to other aircraft.

The X-57 Maxwell is yet another example of how X-planes help improve technological know-how. The X-57 was designated in 2016, with its first flight planned for 2017. NASA's original plan for the aircraft included multiple small electric motors to drive small propellers placed along the length of the aircraft's wing.

The aircraft was made by modifying an Italian Tecnam P2006T with an electric propulsion system to compare the data generated to conventional combustion engines.

Achievements of the X-57

NASA's plans for test flights faced multiple setbacks from time to time. However, this also allowed the agency to improve the technology required for electric flight.

For instance, the discharge of the battery during the operation of the aircraft led to overheating installed on the plane would heat up during discharge and required NASA's engineers to redesign it from eight to sixteen modules and use aluminum honeycomb separators.

NASA also had to scale back on the number of propellers on the aircraft wing eventually to just two. The issues of heat generated by the propellers also led to the design of the cruise motor controllers. These controllers were equipped with silicon carbide transistors that have 98 percent efficiency, which minimizes the heat generated and helps in quicker cooling of the electric motors.

The achievements from the project, such as the design and development of filters to block electromagnetic interference from electric propulsion, have been extensively published in research journals.

The plane that did not take off

X-57 Maxwell scrapped: NASA's X-plane will never make its first flight
The X-57 Maxwell during a ground test

The hurdles in the path of X-57s meant that the first flight kept getting delayed even further. NASA had planned to conduct it later this year. However, a detailed analysis of the motors that power the propellers revealed concerns about a potential failure under flight load, a safety risk for pilots and ground staff during tests.

NASA has worked out a design for the motors to fix the issue. However, the agency estimates that it would take too long to develop and implement this change, which does not fit into the resources of time and money it can allot to the X-57 project. Under such a circumstance, the agency has decided to wrap up the project without a single test flight.

The operational activities will continue till September, following which documentation and close-out activities will continue for several months, NASA added in the press release.

Recently, the agency confirmed its newest X-plane, X-66A, where it is working with Boeing to make air travel more sustainable.

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