NASA has captured unprecedented photographs of the interaction of shockwaves from two supersonic aircraft, part of its research into developing planes that can fly faster than sound without thunderous sonic booms.
When an aircraft crosses that threshold — about 1,225kph at sea level — it produces waves from the pressure it puts on the air around it, which merge to cause an ear-splitting sound.
In an intricate maneuver by “rock star” pilots at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California, two supersonic T-38 jets flew just 9m apart below another plane waiting to photograph them with an advanced, high-speed camera, the agency said.
Photo: AFP PHOTO / NASA
The rendezvous — at an altitude of about 30,000 feet (9.14km) — yielded mesmerizing images of the shockwaves emanating from both planes.
With one jet flying just behind the other, “the shocks are going to be shaped differently,” Neal Smith of AerospaceComputing Inc, an engineering firm that works with NASA, said in a post on the agency’s Web site.
“This data is really going to help us advance our understanding of how these shocks interact,” Smith said.
Sonic booms can be a major nuisance, capable of not just startling people on the ground, but also causing damage — like shattered windows — which has led to tough restrictions on supersonic flight over land in countries like the US.
The ability to capture such detailed images of shockwaves would be “crucial” to NASA’s development of the X-59, an experimental supersonic plane that the agency hopes could break the sound barrier with just a rumble instead of a sonic boom, NASA said.
A breakthrough like that could lead to the loosening of flight restrictions and the return of commercial supersonic planes for the first time since Concorde was retired in 2003.
Some countries and cities barred the Franco-British airplane from their airspace because of its sonic booms.
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