NASA Captures First-Ever Photos of Supersonic Shockwaves

Mar 7, 2019

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NASA has taken the first-ever photos of the interaction of shockwaves from two supersonic aircraft in flight.

When a supersonic aircraft flies, it goes faster than the speed of sound (aka Mach speed). “Shockwaves produced by aircraft merge together as they travel through the atmosphere and are responsible for what is heard on the ground as a sonic boom,” NASA explained in a statement.

Photo of supersonic shockwaves by NASA.

NASA has been researching how to create supersonic aircraft (for instance, the famous but defunct Concorde), that produce shockwaves in such a manner that, instead of creating a noisy and disruptive sonic boom, only create a “quiet rumble.” This would help lift current regulations that forbid supersonic flights over land. Several companies, such as Boom, Aerion and Boeing, are working to develop new supersonic passenger planes.

“We never dreamt that it would be this clear, this beautiful,” JT Heineck, a physical scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, said of the images in a statement. “I am ecstatic about how these images turned out,” Heineck said. “With this upgraded system, we have, by an order of magnitude, improved both the speed and quality of our imagery from previous research.”

Photo of supersonic shockwaves by NASA.
Photo of supersonic shockwaves by NASA.

The aircraft pictured are two T-38s from the US Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in southern California. To capture the images, NASA flew a B-200 King Air at about 30,000 feet while the pair of T-38s flew about 2,000 feet below. Timing was key, as the B-200 had to be in precisely the correct position as the T-38s passed because its specially-developed cameras can only record for three seconds.

The photo technique took more than a decade to develop.

Photo of supersonic shockwaves by NASA.
Photo of supersonic shockwaves by NASA.

“We’re seeing a level of physical detail here that I don’t think anybody has ever seen before,” Dan Banks, senior research engineer at NASA Armstrong, said in a statement. “Just looking at the data for the first time, I think things worked out better than we’d imagined. This is a very big step.”

Featured photo by NASA.

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