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This is what a sonic boom looks like

Published Mar 6th, 2019 4:12PM EST
sonic boom photo
Image: NASA

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Anyone who has experienced a sonic boom for themselves knows just how startling the massive clap of energy can feel. Sonic booms can carry for huge distances and, depending on how far they have to travel, they can shatter windows, shake buildings, and generally disrupt life… but what does a sonic boom look like?

NASA scientists have been working on answering that very question, and a fresh series of images captured with a novel new imaging technique provides our best look yet at not one, but several sonic shockwaves in action.

A sonic boom is the result of an aircraft or other object breaking the sound barrier. The physics behind how a boom is created are complex, but in the simplest terms the shockwave is generated by pressure that builds in front of a very speedy object. Sound waves, which of course move at the speed of sound, can’t outrun an object like a supersonic jet moving at speed, and as the vehicle cuts through them they form a cone-shaped wave of energy.

But knowing what a sonic boom is and actually capturing it on film are two very different things. To accomplish the latter feat, scientists from NASA’s Ames Research Center developed a new “Air-to-Air” photographic technique that can see the air pressure of the shockwave as it’s being generated.

The result is what you see here, which are two supersonic jets generating intense pressure waves that, once they reach the ground, will be heard as sonic booms. The images are pretty cool, but the research being conducted here isn’t all about the eye candy.

NASA is trying to better understand how supersonic shockwaves move and interact with each other in order to develop new technologies that could mitigate the big booms. Sonic booms are disruptive when they reach populated areas, and one of the biggest complaints of people who live near areas where supersonic jets are flown is that they’re just plain annoying.

NASA is working on concepts including a jet that creates quieter sonic booms. That vehicle, called the X-59, is expected to begin testing within the next few years, and research like this could help NASA perfect the technology sooner rather than later.

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