NASA image of X-plane shows shockwaves caused by aircraft

By Brooks Hays  |  Dec. 18, 2017 at 4:27 PM
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Dec. 18 (UPI) -- A new NASA image offers a preview of what the agency's next X-plane will look like when it finally takes flight.

The image, shared online by NASA on Monday, showcases the Air Force Test Pilot School T-38 in a transonic state. The plane is seen transitioning from subsonic to supersonic speed. Shockwaves can be seen beginning to form above and beneath the aircraft.

The image was captured during test flights at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center in California. To capture the image, scientists deployed a technique called schlieren photography.

Researchers are using the photo and others like it to better understand the shockwave formation process. Their insights could help engineers make the sonic booms created by the next X-plane a bit quieter -- potentially quiet enough to enable supersonic commercial air travel.

NASA expects the next X-plane, the Low Boom Flight Demonstration aircraft, or LBFD, to debut in 2022. Scientists hope the plane will be able to reach Mach 1 without triggering a sonic boom.

In addition to the challenge of creating a quieter sonic boom, NASA scientists also face the challenge of filming shockwaves. Last weeks tests, the second phase of the so-called BOSCO flights, proved the researchers are up to the challenge.

Scientists validated their photography methods from both the ground and an aircraft trailing the Air Force Test Pilot School T-38.

"The main objective here was to see what the image looks like at close range, including what kind of shockwave structure we can make out," Mike Hill, lead investigator for the latest BOSCO flights, said in a news release. "We needed to use our new compact camera system in order to get an idea of the quality of the images of those shockwaves using a smaller system."

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