Incredible Images Show Supersonic Shockwaves From The Air For The First Time

The T-38 jets in supersonic flight. NASA Photo

NASA has released some incredible new pictures of the supersonic shockwaves formed from two jets flying next to each other. These are the first air-to-air images of the phenomenon, and it was possible thanks to a brand new approach developed by the agency to study supersonic flow in real conditions.

The subjects of the photos are two T-38 planes in supersonic flight, flying 10 meters (33 feet) away from each other. The photos were taken by NASA's B-200 King Air that was flying 600 meters (2,000 feet) above the supersonic jets.

“We never dreamt that it would be this clear, this beautiful,” J.T. Heineck, a physical scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, said in a statement. “I am ecstatic about how these images turned out. With this upgraded system, we have, by an order of magnitude, improved both the speed and quality of our imagery from previous research.”

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. They also improved the download capacity, meaning they had a greater ability to download more data per pass. NASA previously used the schlieren photography technique to capture shockwaves, but images like this would not have been possible without the upgrades.

The T-38 jets in supersonic flight. NASA Photo

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

The images are not just breathtaking, they are also full of useful data. Researchers are going to use them to confirm the design of NASA’s X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology X-plane, or X-59 QueSST. This experimental vehicle will fly supersonic, but it won’t produce the loud sonic boom. Eliminating the sonic boom would make it feasible to lift current restrictions on flying supersonic over land.

“We’re looking at a supersonic flow, which is why we’re getting these shockwaves,” said Neal Smith, a research engineer with AerospaceComputing Inc. at NASA Ames’ fluid mechanics laboratory. “What’s interesting is, if you look at the rear T-38, you see these shocks kind of interact in a curve. This is because the trailing T-38 is flying in the wake of the leading aircraft, so the shocks are going to be shaped differently. This data is really going to help us advance our understanding of how these shocks interact.”

NASA seem to be keeping up with their timeframe of constructing a full-scale version of a quiet supersonic plane within the next few years.

A “knife-edge” shot of a single T-38 in supersonic flight. NASA Photo



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