NASA captures 'first' images of supersonic shockwaves colliding in flight

Mindy Sparks
March 9, 2019

Using newly upgraded air-to-air photographic technology that took 10 years to develop, NASA's ethereal images show for the first time the interaction of shockwaves from two supersonic planes in flight. They feature two T-38s from the US Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base with shockwaves - the rapid pressure changes that produce sonic booms - emanating from them, looking a little bit like waves from a fast-moving motorboat.

Capturing the split-second sonic boom wasn't easy: the NASA King Air flying a pattern around 30,000ft (10,000m) had to be in the exact right spot as a pair of T-38s raced past at supersonic speeds, 2,000ft (660m) below.

With one jet flying just behind the other, "the shocks are going to be shaped differently", said Neal Smith of AerospaceComputing Inc, an engineering firm that works with Nasa, in a post on the agency's website. The trailing aircraft is about ten feet lower than the leading T-38. Documenting their burst through the sound barrier from such a close vantage point will help NASA accrue more data on supersonic shock waves than ever before, which is a pressing matter given the potential resurrection of supersonic passenger travel.

The aim: Pretty though the images are, there's a serious goal: collecting data to help with the design of NASA's new X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology X-plane.

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"I am ecstatic about how these images turned out", said Physical Scientist J T Heineck of Nasa's Ames Research Center.

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

NASA wants to make a supersonic airplane that rumbles instead of booms. "This is a very big step".

When aircraft fly faster than the speed of sound, shock waves travel away from the vehicle, and are heard on the ground as a sonic boom. The study of how shock waves interact with each other, as well as with the exhaust plume of an aircraft, has been a topic of interest among researchers.

Scientists captured the images using a NASA B-200 King Air outfitted with an upgraded camera system.

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 auto door closing, Sputnik reported. Accordingly, the X-59 has been unofficially dubbed the "Little Concorde", after the now-retired French-built supersonic airliner.

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