NASA has recently announced that its all-electric aircraft, the X-57 Maxwell, has overcome yet another obstacle on its journey to becoming a viable alternative to conventional aircraft powered by fossil fuels.
The airline industry has frequently been criticized as a result of the significantly large amounts of pollution that aircraft produce, exacerbating global warming and climate change. However, with society becoming ever more climate-conscious and with the pressing need to meet the target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the aviation industry is now driven by sustainability and the idea of reducing emissions.
In light of this, NASA has previously publicly declared how it will contribute to supporting three key areas – streamlining airline operations, developing sustainable fuels, and using advanced vehicle technologies – and help realize the challenging goal of decarbonization across the industry, and the X-57 Maxwell all-electric aircraft is a total representation of NASA’s commitment to developing working sustainable aviation solutions.
NASA’s X 57 Maxwell Powers Up
Video Credit: NASA
With the goal being greener, quieter, and more sustainable aviation, the X-57 Maxwell has demonstrated a major breakthrough after NASA was able to successfully install a pair of 400 lb commercially available lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery packs into the X-57’s cabin. The Li-ion battery packs will be used as the main energy source to propel the plane rather than being dependent on conventional aviation fuel.
Custom Lightweight Cases
To ensure the battery packs were compatible with the interior requirements of the X-57 Maxwell, the team developing the aircraft at NASA custom-designed lightweight cases that could be easily installed and integrated into the plane. They then subjected the packs to extensive rounds of testing to make sure the batteries were able to power the X-57 in a safe and efficient manner.
Previous tests had shown that the batteries could power the X-57’s motors but had yet to be integrated into the plane itself as testing was conducted with the Li-ion packs external to the aircraft. The team initially conducted randomized vibration tests to ensure the X-57’s cruise motor controllers were functioning properly.
Shake tablets were configured to vibrate randomly at frequencies equivalent to that of the accelerating motors. These acceptance tests help ensure the functionality of all hardware systems, such as the motors and motor controllers, during flight for the X-57 aircraft.
Once vibrational testing was completed, and the team was able to confirm that all systems would remain functional when subjected to the vibration expected during a routine flight, they were able to finalize the installation of the Li-ion packs.
Once installed, the crew was then able to start internal testing and prove the concept as the batteries successfully powered the X-57’s motors for the equivalent duration of an entire flight.
Ready for Take-Off
With this phase of the project successfully completed, NASA plans to conduct flight and taxi procedures as soon as the required integration and system tests are complete and the aircraft is proven to perform as anticipated.
Each flight will increasingly test the endurance capacity of the X-57 Maxwell. NASA will use these tests as an opportunity to collect data that can then be used to better understand the aircraft’s inflight performance and operation. The focus will be on collecting the requisite data to further prove the X-57’s airworthiness and share the newly developed electric-propulsion-based design with the wider industry.
As a result of the X-57 and NASA’s efforts, all-electric planes now have the potential to help the aviation industry achieve its sustainability goals by demonstrating that environmentally compatible flight is possible. Other steps include gaining the support of regulators and aviation standard bodies to inform the required certification for all-electric aircraft.
References and Further Reading
White, D., (2022) NASA’S X-57 Maxwell Powers Up. NASA, NASA, Available at: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/nasa-s-x-57-maxwell-powers-up