NASA captures unprecedented images of supersonic shock waves

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The pictures you see here are the first air-to-air images of supersonic shockwave interaction in flight.

NASA's mission to capture air-to-air images of supersonic shock waves was a long and fraught process that lasted more a decade.

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

"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.

NASA employed a pair of T-38 aircraft from the US Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base as they flew mere metres apart. When the shockwaves merge as they travel through the atmosphere, sonic booms are produced.

L.V. Anderson is Digg's managing editor.

The shockwaves caught in the images are what create the sonic boom people hear when a plane breaks the sounds barrier, according to Popular Science magazine.

The study of how shockwaves interact with each other, as well as with the exhaust plume of an aircraft, has been a topic of interest among researchers.

NASA snaps supersonic shockwaves interacting in flight: Wowza!
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NASA shared the results of a first-of-its-kind imaging technique this week.

"I am ecstatic about how these images turned out", NASA Physical Scientist J.T. Heineck said in a press release.

"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. Sound waves, which of course move at the speed of sound, can't outrun an object like a supersonic jet moving at speed, and as the vehicle cuts through them they form a cone-shaped wave of energy.

The lovely images show a pair of T-38s from the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base.

"We're seeing a level of physical detail here that I don't think anybody has ever seen before", said Dan Banks, a senior research engineer at NASA. The aircraft used to capture the images was a NASA B-200 King Air featuring an upgraded camera system able to capture a wide field of view at 1,400 frames per second.

"Just looking at the data for the first time, I think things worked out better than we had imagined".

These efforts will help advance knowledge of the characteristics of shockwaves as NASA progresses toward quiet supersonic research flights with the X-59, and closer toward a major milestone in aviation. "That is a very big step".

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