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NASA's push to quiet sonic booms

To create cross-country faster-than-sound travel, NASA is aiming to dampen sonic booms generated when planes go supersonic.

concept supersonic cruise vehicle
Artist's concept of a future supersonic cruise vehicle designed to have low-level sonic booms. Frassanito & Associates

Sonic booms aren't just cheesy ranged weapons that Guile from Street Fighter uses to defend his epic flat-top. They're the result of an aircraft breaking the sound barrier. And they can be loud enough to deafen E. Honda.

The nerve-rattling noise factor has restricted much supersonic travel to the world's oceans, limiting intercontinental flight to sub-Mach speeds. But a series of experiments being conducted by NASA are aimed at enabling a new generation of supersonic crafts that can dampen or even eliminate sonic booms.

You'll poke your eye out, kid. NASA photo by Tom Tschida

NASA aerospace engineer Ed Haering today answered reader questions about "what it's like to try to tame a sonic boom," and included images of an F-15B prototype (left) modified with the awesome-looking Unicorn-like "Quiet Spike."

The retractable, 24-foot-long spike is mounted to the nose of the aircraft and creates three smaller shockwaves that travel all the way to the ground in parallel instead of building up to a sonic boom. That configuration greatly reduces noise when the aircraft goes Mach 1, or about 760 mph, the speed of sound at sea level.

In its bid to tame the sonic boom, NASA has performed ground experiments with names like "SonicBOBS," "SonicBREWS," "LaNCETS," "House VIBES," and even "Low Boom/No Boom." They sound like Dubstep bands, but they entail serious research being done by serious scientists. The Quiet Spike, along with some of the other projects, are proving that aircraft can indeed "mold" soundwaves when breaking the sound barrier.

If the experiments are successful, a new generation of supersonic planes could be crisscrossing the country, allowing flights in a fraction of the time they take now. Frequent travelers will welcome the news, if not the fun. Who doesn't want to go supersonic?