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NASA unveils the first electric plane

NASA, most notable for its many explosions into space from Florida, unveiled an early version of its first electric experimental aircraft, the X-57 "Maxwell."

Adapted from the twin-engine Tecnam P2006T twin-engine propeller, the X-57 has been in development since 2015 and remains at least one year from the first test flight in the sky above Edward Air Force Base.

But after attaching the two largest of the 14 electric motors that will eventually propel the plane – powered by specially designed lithium-ion batteries – NASA considered Maxwell ready for its first public review.

In its lesser-known aviation lab in the California desert, NASA also showed off a newly-built simulator that gives engineers and pilots the impression of how it will handle the finished version of the X-57 in flight, even while the aircraft remains in development.

Maxwell is the latest in a proud line of experimental aircraft that the National Aviation and Space Administration has developed over many decades for many purposes, including the X-1 bell bullet that first broke through the sound barrier and the X-15 rocket aircraft flew Neil Armstrong before has joined the moon team at Apollo.

Maxwell will be the first X-ray crewed aircraft to be developed in two decades.

While private companies have been developing fully electric airplanes and flying aircraft for years, NASA's X-57 venture is focused on designing and demonstrating technology to standards that commercial manufacturers can adapt to government certification.

They will include standards for airworthiness and safety, as well as energy efficiency and noise, Brent Cobleigh, project manager for NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, about 100 miles (160 km) north of Los Angeles.

"We're focused on things that can help the whole industry, not just one company," he told Reuters in an interview at the research center. "Our goal right now is to fly this plane at the end of 2020."

The last modification to the aircraft, or Mod IV, will have narrower lighter wings fitted with a total of 14 electric motors – six smaller struts along the leading edge of each wing, plus two larger "cruise" props on top of each wing.

The lifting propellers will activate for takeoff and landing, but retract during the cruise phase of the flight.

Because electric motor systems are more compact with less moving parts than internal combustion engines, they are easier to maintain and weigh less, requiring less energy to fly, Cobleigh explained. They are also quieter than classic engines.

One of the challenges is to improve battery technology to store more energy to extend the reach of aircraft, with faster recharging.

Due to the current battery limitations, Maxwell's design is intended for use in short flights as an air taxi or trailer for a small number of passengers.

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