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Next generation experimental aircraft becomes NASA’s newest X-Plane. Meet the sustainable X-66A.

NASA's newest X-Plane - the sustainable X-66A

NASA and Boeing announced on Monday that the aircraft created through the agency’s Sustainable Flight Demonstrator project has been given the designation X-66A by the U.S. Air Force. The goal of this new X-plane is to explore the potential for more sustainable single-aisle aircraft, which are the most commonly used planes for passenger airlines worldwide. Boeing will partner with NASA to construct, test, and fly a full-scale demonstrator aircraft based on the Transonic Truss-Braced Wing concept. This design features extra-long, thin wings supported by diagonal struts, which provide stability during flight.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, said,

“At NASA, our eyes are not just focused on stars but also fixated on the sky. The Sustainable Flight Demonstrator builds on NASA’s world-leading efforts in aeronautics as well as climate. The X-66A will help shape the future of aviation, a new era where aircraft are greener, cleaner, and quieter, and create new possibilities for the flying public and American industry alike.”

The X-66A is the first X-plane designed to assist the United States in achieving the net-zero aviation greenhouse gas emissions goal outlined in the White House’s U.S. Aviation Climate Action Plan.

Bob Pearce, associate administrator for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, who announced the designation at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Aviation Forum in San Diego, explained:

“To reach our goal of net zero aviation emissions by 2050, we need transformative aircraft concepts like the ones we’re flying on the X-66A. With this experimental aircraft, we’re aiming high to demonstrate the kinds of energy-saving, emissions-reducing technologies the aviation industry needs.”

NASA and Boeing applied for the X-plane designation soon after the agency announced the Sustainable Flight Demonstrator project award earlier this year. The Air Force grants X-plane status for development programs that aim to create experimental aircraft with revolutionary configurations. Except for a few cases, X-planes are meant to test designs and technologies that can be implemented into other aircraft models, rather than function as prototypes for full production.

Todd Citron, Boeing chief technology officer, said,

“We’re incredibly proud of this designation because it means that the X-66A will be the next in a long line of experimental aircraft used to validate breakthrough designs that have transformed aviation. With the learnings gained from design, construction, and flight-testing, we’ll have an opportunity to shape the future of flight and contribute to the decarbonization of aerospace.”

The X-66A is an aircraft that the Air Force named to test Transonic Truss-Braced Wing technology. This technology could reduce fuel consumption and emissions by up to 30% when combined with advancements in propulsion systems, materials, and systems architecture.

Nearly half of worldwide aviation emissions come from single-aisle aircraft, which are heavily used. Creating sustainable versions of these aircraft could greatly reduce emissions.

The history of X-Plan designations

NASA has a long history with the X-plane designation, dating back to the 1940s when the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) jointly created an experimental aircraft program with the Air Force and the U.S. Navy. The X-66A is the latest in a line of NASA X-planes. Additionally, NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California, provides technical expertise and support for several additional X-planes.

For the Sustainable Flight Demonstrator, NASA has a Funded Space Act Agreement with Boeing that will invest $425 million over seven years, while the company and its partners will contribute the remainder of the funding, estimated at about $725 million. NASA will also provide technical expertise and facilities.

The Sustainable Flight Demonstrator project is an activity under NASA’s Integrated Aviation Systems Program and a key element of the agency’s Sustainable Flight National Partnership, which focuses on developing new sustainable aviation technologies.

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