NASA Photographs Supersonic Shockwave Interaction

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Image: NASA

Image: NASA

NASA has successfully captured the first images of the interaction between shockwaves from two supersonic aircraft in flight. Using a technique called schlieren photography, a process used to image density gradients in fluids, researchers were able to photograph the shockwaves caused by a pair of U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School T-38s as they passed underneath NASA’s B-200 King Air photo-ship. The images were captured during the fourth phase of the agency’s Air-to-Air Background Oriented Schlieren (AirBOS) flights, which took place at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California.

“We’re seeing a level of physical detail here that I don’t think anybody has ever seen before,” said senior research engineer at NASA Armstrong Dan Banks. “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.”

According to NASA, it will use the data from this and future schlieren photo missions to confirm the design of the agency’s X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology (QueSST) aircraft. NASA’s goal with the QueSST X-plane is to develop an aircraft capable of travelling at supersonic speeds while producing shockwaves that sound like a quiet rumble rather than a sonic “boom.” If the aircraft performs as planned, the agency hopes the technology could pave the way for lifting current restrictions on supersonic flight over land. The QueSST aircraft is being built by Lockheed Martin and is expected to begin flight testing as early as 2021.