Supersonic research will rumble Space Coast in August

Residents could hear up to 11 sonic booms during SonicBAT flights, NASA says

By Emilee Speck - Digital journalist
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An F-18 research aircraft, pictured here, taxiing to the runway from NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif.

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. - The Space Coast could experience more than 30 sonic booms in August as NASA conducts a two-week investigation into how turbulence affects the rumbling created as aircraft fly faster than the speed of sound, the space agency said Monday.

Researchers from NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center and Langley Research Center in Virginia will conduct a series of tests as part of the Sonic Booms in Atmospheric Turbulence flights, or SonicBAT, at Kennedy Space Center starting Monday, Aug. 21.

The project will help researchers understand how atmospheric turbulence can influence the sonic booms residents often hear after SpaceX lands its Falcon 9 boosters at Cape Canaveral or when the Space Shuttle would return to Earth.

SonicBAT is in its second round of environment testing, last summer the NASA group tested supersonic flights in the desert near Edwards Air Force Base in California. Now the team is hoping to use Florida’s humid atmosphere to continue its investigation.

"Turbulence can make sonic booms quieter, or it can make them louder,” Ed Haering, SonicBAT's principal investigator said. “Last summer we tested in the hot, dry climate of Edwards Air Force Base. We know that humidity can make sonic booms louder, so we need to test some place wetter, and Kennedy fits that bill.”

The series of flights will happen two-to-three times a day and are part of an initiative to develop future quieter supersonic aircraft, according to NASA. The space agency awarded a contract to Lockheed Martin in 2016 to design a quiet supersonic plane called the Low-Boom Flight Demonstration aircraft.

While conducting SonicBAT research at KSC an F/A-18 Super Hornet will take off from the old Space Shuttle runway, fly off the coast of Brevard County reaching 32,000 feet and exceeding Mach 1 speeds (the speed of sound) in order to produce a window-rattling boom.

NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center spokesman Matt Kamlet said the flights will vary day-to-day because of weather condition, but will typically fly between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.

As the F-18 is in flight, a TG-14 motorized glider with microphones on its wingtip will fly between 4,000 and 10,000 feet, shutting off its motor and gliding, which will allow the microphones to record the sound of the sonic booms without extra noise, according to NASA.

Two microphone panels will also be on the ground at KSC to collect data, each with 16 microphones.

NASA issued a news release Monday giving residents along the Space Coast a heads up that they could hear sonic booms from the SonicBAT flights, but also telling them not to worry.

People who lived in Brevard County during the Space Shuttle Program will remember the feeling of the rumble well.

"We have carefully planned our flights so that there is little chance that people in larger communities such as Titusville to the west, or Cocoa Beach to the south, will be disturbed,” Hearing said. “Residents might hear a distant sound similar to a rumble of thunder. If the actual winds at the time of our tests are much different from predicted, they might hear a boom sound like those heard when the space shuttle landed. That may be startling, but there is no reason to be alarmed."

The Federal Aviation Administration currently does not allow supersonic flights over land. NASA officials said they hope data collected from SonicBAT and a new generation of quiet supersonic aircraft will provide enough cause for the FAA to develop new standards for supersonic flight over land.

"NASA's development of quiet supersonic flight technology needs support, interest and engagement from the community to ensure that the potential sound is acceptable to those on the ground," said Peter Coen, NASA's Commercial Supersonic Technology project manager.

For now, Space Coast visitors and residents should mark their calendars for Aug. 21, sonic booms will rumble and roll for two weeks.

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