NASA snaps supersonic shockwaves interacting in flight: Wowza!

The space agency reveals sci-fi-looking views of supersonic jets exceeding the speed of sound.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
2 min read

NASA captured the "first air-to-air images of the interaction of shockwaves from two supersonic aircraft flying in formation."


NASA wants to make a supersonic airplane that rumbles instead of booms. To do that, the agency needs to understand the intimate details of how supersonic shockwaves work. Some mind-bending new images show for the first time how shockwaves interact in flight. 

The images look unreal. They show two US Air Force T-38 training jets with lines radiating off to their sides and plumes extending out behind. This gives us a gorgeous visualization of the shockwaves that are heard on the ground as loud sonic booms. 


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NASA says these are "the first-ever images of the interaction of shockwaves from two supersonic aircraft in flight." The achievement came about during the latest phase of the agency's Air-to-Air Background Oriented Schlieren (AirBOS) flights at the Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California.

NASA's advanced air-to-air imaging system required some fancy flying to make it all work. The T-38s traveled in formation about 30 feet (9 meters) apart. A NASA B-200 King Air plane carried the camera system as the T-38s flew below it at supersonic speeds. The timing had to be perfect, and it was.

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

The data and the imaging system will come in handy as NASA continues work on the X-59 Quiet Supersonic Technology X-Plane. The agency hopes to make supersonic flight over land possible by removing the big, disturbing boom of current aircraft designs.

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