NASA captures incredible images of supersonic shockwaves interacting in flight

Rodiano Bonacci
Marzo 8, 2019

Snapped by another plane flying at about 2,000 feet (610 m) above the two fast-moving aircraft, the images captured how the shock waves became distorted or curved as they interacted. The images, which were captured during the fourth phase of Air-to-Air Background Oriented Schlieren flights, or AirBOS, were taken from a NASA B-200 King Air that had a significantly upgraded camera system and data storage system.

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

"I am ecstatic about how these images turned out", Mr Heineck said.

The new photographic technology allowed researchers to capture three times the amount of data compared to previous tests, which will play a key role in NASA's development of its X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology X-plane. Though humans can't see these shock waves, we can hear them merging together as they move through the atmosphere as a thunder-like sound called a sonic boom.

The pictures show a pair of T-38s from the US Air Force Test Pilot School flying in formation.

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U.S. space agency NASA took the iconic images during the fourth phase of Air-to-Air Background Oriented Schlieren flights (AirBOS), at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Centre, California.

"We're looking at a supersonic flow, which is why we're getting these shockwaves", said Neal Smith, a research engineer with AerospaceComputing Inc.at NASA Ames' fluid mechanics laboratory.

'What's interesting is, if you look at the rear T-38, you see these shocks kind of interact in a curve.

Two supersonic T-38 jets took off and flew 30 feet apart as they broke the sound barrier, both jets creating a shockwave that, for the first time, NASA caught on camera, the agency says. 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.

Sonic booms can be a major nuisance, capable of not just startling people on the ground but also causing damage - like shattered windows - and this has led to strong restrictions on supersonic flight over land in jurisdictions like the United States. "This is a very big step". To do that, the agency needs to understand the intimate details of how supersonic shockwaves work.

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