What Piercing The Sound Barrier Looks Like

Exceeding speeds of 760 miles per hour, supersonic jets pierce the sound barrier with a resounding “BOOM!”

image of jet piercing the sound barrier
Schlieren photography captured the moment a jet breached the sound barrier. Credit NASA

By Nicholas St. Fleur, NY Times

Now, NASA researchers have captured high-resolution images of the shock waves that generate the thunderous moment. They released the new imagesearlier this week.

Scientists from NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center and Ames Research Center used a 150-year old technique called schlieren photography to reveal how air flowed around the jet as it blasted through the sky.

The German physicist August Toepler developed schlieren photography around 1864. Today, the technique has captured everything from gas emanating from aburning match to germs spewing from a person’s cough.

image of T-38 trainer jet
A T-38C from the Air Force Test Pilot School served as a target for NASA’s schlieren imaging system.
Credits: U.S. Air Force Photo

To take this supersonic shot, NASA pilots flew a jet thousands of feet beneath a second airplane equipped with a high-speed camera. The second plane caught the moment that the jet exceeded Mach 1, the speed of sound.

By using special software, the researchers eliminated the desert background, enabling the usually invisible shock waves, vortices and engine plume to emerge. The researchers said that they hope these images will help them improve designs for future supersonic flights.