NASA captures first images of supersonic shockwaves colliding in flight

Olive Hawkins
March 10, 2019

The jets took off from the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in southern California.

One of the greatest challenges of the flight series was timing.

NASA has been working to develop its own supersonic craft with a quieter sonic boom, with intentions to perform supersonic flights over land. The T-38s traveled in formation about 30 feet (9 meters) apart.

With exceptional clarity, the flow of the shock waves from both aircraft is seen in the images, and for the first time, the interaction of the shocks can be seen in flight.

"We never dreamt that it would be this clear, this attractive", J.T. Heineck, a physical scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center, said in a statement.

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"With this upgraded system, we have, by an order of magnitude, improved both the speed and quality of our imagery from previous research".

"We're seeing a level of physical detail here that I don't think anybody has ever seen before", senior research engineer Dan Banks said. "This is a very big step".

By understanding how shock waves form and interact in the air, engineers hope to hone the aircraft's design and, eventually, show regulators that supersonic aircraft can be made quiet, NASA officials said in the statement. These are the first air-to-air images of the phenomenon, and it was possible thanks to a brand new approach developed by the agency to study supersonic flow in real conditions. For NASA has released awe-inspiring images marking the split-second sonic boom shockwaves as they ripple from supersonic planes - in a world first.

The effect of a sonic boom can range from nuisance to property-destroying. In the pictures, we can see two T-38 from the US Air Force. It was not simple for scientists to research supersonic shockwaves, as they are incredibly loud, and they create sonic booms. However, the AirBOS 4 flights used an updated version of the schlieren systems, which captured triple the amount of data they were able to capture previously. The scientists tested a new imaging system which can capture accurate images of shockwaves, which are sudden changes in pressure which occur when an aircraft breaks the sound barrier.

Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works design bureau hopes to have the X-59 ready by 2021 and boasts its boom will be no louder than a vehicle door closing, Sputnik reported. Sonic booms can carry for huge distances and, depending on how far they have to travel, they can shatter windows, shake buildings, and generally disrupt life... but what does a sonic boom look like?

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