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New NASA Supersonic Shockwave Visualizations Results In Stunning Imagery

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NASA has released a series of images of two T38s aircraft interacting with shockwaves during flight using advanced air-to-air technology.

The images, published on Wednesday, March 6, on its website would help the U.S. space agency continue the development of the X-59 Quiet Supersonic Technology X-Plane that will enable over-land supersonic flight possible by removing the disruptive "boom" from regular aircraft designs.

An Almost Impossible Feat

The images were produced during the fourth phase of the Air-to-Air Background Oriented Schlieren (AirBOS) flights where the space agency tested an upgraded imaging system that can capture shockwaves in high quality. The technology was carried up in the air by the Beechcraft B200 Super King Air aircraft which flew to up to about 9,100 meters.

"With this upgraded system, we have, by an order of magnitude, improved both the speed and quality of our imagery from previous research," stated J.T. Heineck, a scientist from NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

The series of images features a pair of T-38s from the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School. Heather Maliska, AirBOS sub-project manager, commented that the toughest part of the effort was to get the timing right. To capture the shockwave, all three aircraft needed to be in a formation and flying at supersonic speeds. The two T-38s flew in about 10 meters of distance in between and about 600 meters away from the B200.

The result is stunning images that show the interaction between shockwaves and aircraft for the first time ever.

"What's interesting is, if you look at the rear T-38, you see these shocks kind of interact in a curve," Neal Smith, a research engineer from the AerospaceComputing Inc. at NASA, explained. "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."

Less Disruptive Flights

The exercise is in preparation for NASA's Low-Boom Flight Demonstration of the X-59. The mission hopes to collect enough data to convince regulators in the United States and around the world to lift current restrictions around supersonic flights over land.

NASA says supersonic flights over land will dramatically reduce travel time across the United States and anywhere in the world.

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