NASA’s New Electric Plane May Change Air Travel for Good

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NASA's New Electric Plane May Change Air Travel for Good

Courtesy NASA Langley/Advanced Concepts Lab, AMA, Inc.

The plane’s unique wing design will allow it to hold 14 electric motors.

Jetsetting around the world comes at a price—and we’re not talking about dollars. Air travel—with all the convenience it brings—is also one of the biggest contributors to global CO2 emissions: In 2015, flights produced 770 million tonnes of CO2, or around two percent of all human-induced emissions. Is there a way to travel across the world without this massive carbon footprint? NASA, which on Friday began testing a new plane powered by electric motors, seems to think so.

During a keynote speech at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) annual Aviation and Aeronautics Forum and Exposition, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden unveiled the agency’s plans for the X-57, nicknamed ‘Maxwell’ after Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell. A single-seater plane with a unique wing design that holds 14 engines that run on electricity, the X-57 also comes without the carbon emissions—or the excessive noise—of most planes. The project is part of NASA’s ‘New Aviation Horizons’ program, which is leading the way toward faster, quieter, and greener air travel and also includes plans for a supersonic passenger jet.

The plane’s designation is significant, and hearkens back to NASA’s X-planes, experimental aircrafts that have pushed the envelope of aviation since X-1, the first plane to fly faster than the speed of sound, was unveiled in 1947. “Dozens of X-planes of all shapes, sizes and purposes have since followed—all of them contributing to our stature as the world’s leader in aviation and space technology,” said Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, in a press release. “Planes like the X-57, and the others to come, will help us maintain that role.”

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NASA is not the only organization trying to clean up air travel: Solar Impulse 2, a solar-powered plane, is currently on a journey to circumnavigate the globe (the plane took off for its transatlantic leg from New York to Seville this morning). But, unlike the Solar Impulse 2, which is limited to the speed of an average sedan, the Maxwell will be able to cruise at 175 mph, with a five-time reduction in energy requirements as compared to gasoline-powered planes of its size, because of the way the energy is distributed between 14 engines—or at least that’s what the innovation team hopes. The plane is still in the concept stage, but according to CNN, NASA hopes to have the X-57 on runways within the next four years, followed closely behind by five larger electric planes that can carry more passengers and cargo.

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