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NASA captures 'first' images of supersonic shockwaves colliding in flight

NASA will use the data collected as part of their development of the X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology X-plane, which they hope will produce only a quiet rumble rather than a sonic boom. Matthew Robinson, CNN

(CNN) -- NASA has captured groundbreaking images of shockwaves from supersonic aircraft, the space agency said, as part of efforts to create a jet that flies faster than the speed of sound without producing sonic boom.

Using newly upgraded air-to-air photographic technology that took 10 years to develop, NASA's ethereal images show for the first time the interaction of shockwaves from two supersonic planes in flight.

The images depict two T-38 supersonic jets from the US Air Force during a test flight from the research center at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

"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 at NASA, said. "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."

Shockwaves produced by supersonic aircraft are responsible for creating supersonic booms when they merge as they travel through the atmosphere, which has led to restrictions on breaking the sound barrier over land. The ability to fly supersonic without a sonic boom may one day result in lifting current restrictions on supersonic flight over land.

"I am ecstatic about how these images turned out," J.T. Heineck, a scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center, said in a statement. "We never dreamt that it would be this clear, this beautiful."

"With this upgraded system, we have, by an order of magnitude, improved both the speed and quality of our imagery from previous research."

The new photographic technology allowed researchers to capture three times the amount of data compared to previous tests, which will play a key role in NASA's development of its X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology X-plane.

This aircraft will allow NASA to fly supersonic while producing shockwaves in such a way that they produce "only a quiet rumble" rather than a sonic boom.

Dan Banks, senior research engineer at NASA, told CNN that the aircraft is currently in development at Lockheed Martin and is scheduled to undertake its first test flights in 2021.

He noted that the upgraded photographic technology is "very significant" and is allowing researchers to model true shockwave patterns, rather than relying on computer models, which always contain "some differences."

"We're seeing a level of physical detail here that I don't think anybody has ever seen before," Banks said. "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 required precision flying from the US Air Force pilots as the supersonic jets were traveling approximately 30 feet away from each other so that the shockwaves from their aircraft would interact.

The images were captured from a NASA B-200 King Air aircraft, using photographic technology that permitted researchers to collect 1,400 frames per second as it flew in a pattern at around 30,000 feet, observing the T-38s pass approximately 2,000 feet below it.

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2018 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

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