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Since the introduction of the legendary X-1 in 1946, scientists have used the X-plane designations to identify experimental aircraft and rockets used to explore new aerospace technologies. As of early 2016, the X-58 through X-61 designators appeared to remain un-assigned.

NASA has three tiers of experimental vehicles:

  • Tier 1-Testbed: Vehicle that is used to integrate experiments (test fixtures, sensors, subsystems) that are minimally intrusive to flight control systems. "The vehicle carries the experiment."
  • Tier 2 -Disciplinary / System Research Aircraft: Vehicle that is used to focus the validation of discipline specific or system (multi-disciplinary) specific research elements that require extensive modification to the flight control systems, vehicle structure, and vehicle operation. "The vehicle is highly modified by the experiment."
  • Tier 3 - Research Aircraft: Vehicles that are developed or extensively modified to validate new vehicle configurations, integrated vehicle designs, and high-performance research objectives. "The vehicle is the experiment."

In 2016 NASA announced a 10-year plan by NASA Aeronautics to achieve ambitious goals in reducing fuel use, emissions, and noise by the way aircraft are designed, and the way they operate in the air and on the ground. One exciting piece of this 10-year plan is New Aviation Horizons an ambitious undertaking by NASA to design, build and fly a variety of flight demonstration vehicles, or X-planes. The New Aviation Horizons X-planes will typically be about half-scale of a production aircraft, although some may be smaller or larger, and are likely to be piloted. Design-and-build will take several years, with vehicles going to flight starting around 2020 depending on funding.

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