NASA Captures First Air-to-Air Images of Supersonic Shockwave

A supersonic shockwave happens when a disturbance moves faster than the speed of sound. Until this week, the actual visuals of what that looked like was tenuous at best. But now, thanks to the help of NASA, we have crisp, amazing images of this phenomena.

The process for capturing these images was extremely difficult and required amazing precision.  Read below to get a sense for how this mission was pulled off.


To capture the images, the King Air flew in a pattern some 30,000 feet above the ground. Once at the target position, the aircraft was able to document the pair of T-38s passing quickly below—about 2,000 feet below the B-200 King Air. Its special cameras could only record for three seconds, so the timing had to be perfect.


A little primer on shockwaves in general.

Shockwaves produced by aircraft merge together as they travel through the atmosphere and are responsible for what is heard on the ground as a sonic boom.

One of the greatest challenges of the flight series was timing. In order to acquire this image (below), originally monochromatic and shown here as a colorized composite image, NASA flew a B-200, outfitted with an updated imaging system, at around 30,000 feet while the pair of T-38s were required to not only remain in formation, but to fly at supersonic speeds at the precise moment they were directly beneath the B-200. The images were captured as a result of all three aircraft being in the exact right place at the exact right time designated by NASA’s operations team.



“We never dreamt that it would be this clear, this beautiful.”

“I am ecstatic about how these images turned out,” said Heineck. “With this upgraded system, we have, by an order of magnitude, improved both the speed and quality of our imagery from previous research.”

-Physical Scientist J.T. Heineck of NASA’s Ames Research Center

A really beautiful vertical ascent capture, of the plane’s nose piercing through the sound barrier.


While beautiful, the public and private sector are hard at work trying to figure out ways to bring supersonic travel back, and also improve the technology to eliminate the deafening sonic boom.


X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology plane that would be able to fly supersonic without making a sonic boom.