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This NASA image captures the exact moment two jets went supersonic

This first-ever picture of supersonic shock waves interacting midflight needed perfect timing and nerveless flying.

The image: It captures the moment two supersonic jets break the sound barrier at the same time. The shock waves are caused by rapid pressure changes when a plane flies faster than the speed of sound. It was captured in black and white but is shown here as a colorized composite.

Right on time: The images relied on three aircraft all being in exactly the right place at the right time. NASA flew a Beechcraft Super King Air plane at 30,000 feet while a pair of Northrop T-38 Talon planes flew just 2,000 feet below it, breaking into supersonic speeds at exactly the right moment. The NASA plane had been outfitted with an imaging system that was capable of collecting 1,400 frames per second and used a technique known as schlieren photography to capture this image. 

“We never dreamed that it would be this clear, this beautiful,” said NASA scientist JT Heineck. “I am ecstatic about how these images turned out.”

The aim: Pretty though the images are, there’s a serious purpose: collecting data to help with the design of NASA’s new X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology X-plane. NASA hopes that by reducing sonic booms, it might be able to get around the restrictions on supersonic flight over land.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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