NASA captures 1st images of supersonic shockwaves colliding in flight

  • NASA captures 1st images of supersonic shockwaves colliding in flight

NASA captures 1st images of supersonic shockwaves colliding in flight

This week, NASA released the first-ever images of shockwaves from two supersonic jets interacting, and they are simply stunning. The trailing aircraft is about ten feet lower than the leading T-38.

The rendezvous - at an altitude of around 30,000 feet - yielded mesmerizing images of the shockwaves emanating from both planes.

"What's interesting is, if you look at the rear T-38 [in the pair photo], you see these shocks kind of interact in a curve", Neal Smith, a research engineer with AerospaceComputing Inc. working at at NASA Ames' Fluid Mechanics Laboratory, said.

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. These images were captured during the fourth phase of Air-to-Air Background Oriented Schlieren flights or AirSOS that took place at the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center in California. The pictures you see here are the first air-to-air images of supersonic shockwave interaction in flight.

Some countries and cities banned the Franco-British airliner from their airspace because of its sonic booms.

Heather Maliska, NASA AirBOS sub-project manager, said: "The biggest challenge was trying to get the timing correct to make sure we could get these images".

Scientists wanted to study the shockwaves as part of a bid to develop planes which can fly faster than the speed of sound without generating ear-splitting sonic booms.

"With this upgraded system, we have, by an order of magnitude, improved both the speed and quality of our imagery from previous research". The photograph shows details of shockwaves that happen when an aircraft flies at supersonic speeds.

The images were taken in black and white, then NASA added color to the composite images.

"We never dreamt that it would be this clear, this lovely", said physical scientist JT Heineck of NASA's Ames Research Centre in California.

The team used an upgraded camera system with a wider field of view and increased memory, which allowed them to capture 1,400 frames per second. Researchers are going to use them to confirm the design of NASA's X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology X-plane, or X-59 QueSST.