NASA captures first images of supersonic shockwaves colliding in flight

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NASA has captured groundbreaking images of shockwaves from two supersonic aircraft, as part of its efforts to develop planes that can fly faster than the speed of sound without producing thunderous sonic boom, the U.S space agency said.

The images were captured during the fourth phase of Air-to-Air Background Oriented Schlieren flights, or AirBOS, which took place at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in the US.

The flight series saw successful testing of an upgraded imaging system capable of capturing high-quality images of shockwaves, rapid pressure changes which are produced when an aircraft flies faster than the speed of sound, or supersonic, NASA said in a statement.

“I am ecstatic about how these images turned out,” said Physical Scientist J.T Heineck of NASA’s Ames Research Center.

“With this upgraded system, we have, by an order of magnitude, improved both the speed and quality of our imagery from previous research,” Heineck said.

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.

The system will be used to capture data crucial to confirming the design of the agency’s X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology X-plane which will fly supersonic, but will produce shockwaves in such a way that, instead of a loud sonic boom, only a quiet rumble may be heard.

The ability to fly supersonic without a sonic boom may one day result in lifting current restrictions on supersonic flight over land, the U.S space agency said.

The images feature a pair of T-38s from the US Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, flying in formation at supersonic speeds.

The T-38s were flying approximately 30 feet away from each other, with the trailing aircraft flying about 10 feet lower than the leading T-38.

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