“Did you hear that?”

That will be the question from many Galveston residents this fall, when NASA plans to fly jet planes over the Gulf of Mexico at supersonic speeds as part of a newly announced study.

The study is part of a long-term NASA project to design planes with quieter sonic booms. Data gathered during the study could aid in the development of supersonic commercial planes that don’t rattle windows when they pass overhead, said Peter Coen, NASA’s Commercial Supersonic Technology project manager.

NASA’s aeronautics division has been trying for more than a decade to develop aircraft that can break the sound barrier without disturbing the peace, and it’s now ready to start testing, Coen said.

“We think we’ve finally figured out a way to design airplanes that instead of producing a sharp crack, it’s kind of a dull thud,” he said during an interview on Monday at Galveston City Hall.

To test the new design, NASA has to collect data about sonic booms, which it will do off Galveston in November. A pair of NASA F-18s will perform special a maneuver in the air over the Gulf of Mexico that produces the “quieter” boom.

NASA will enlist about 500 volunteers who will be asked to fill out online surveys about how they reacted to the booms from the test flights. The agency also will install devices across the island to collect information about the sonic booms, Coen said.

Galveston was chosen because of its proximity to the water and its relatively condensed population, he said.

The tests shouldn’t cause much of a public disruption, Coen said. The planes will perform maneuvers over the Gulf of Mexico at between 30,000 and 50,000 feet. The sonic booms should sound something like distant thunder, he said.

The F-18s will take off from Ellington Airport in Houston.

NASA will spend the coming months conducting outreach with community groups to gather interest, and sooth nerves, about the coming tests.

NASA officials already have met with Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough, and had plans Monday to meet with the Port of Galveston and cruise line officials to talk about what ships and boats in the Gulf might experience during the tests.

“There may be some rattling noises,” Yarbrough said. “I think overall it’s going to have minimal impact on us.”

City employees will be briefed on how to respond to questions from residents about the testing, Yarbrough said.

The tests are part of the longer-term development of a quieter supersonic commercial jet plane.

Earlier this month, NASA awarded a $247.5 million contract to develop and build the X-Plane, a 94-foot-long aircraft that will be able to travel at speeds up to 940 mph.

NASA’s goal is to create planes that can fly horizontally without creating loud sonic booms.

Aircraft can now achieve supersonic speeds without producing thunderous booms by doing a specific dive maneuver, Coen said.

NASA’s goal is to design a plane that can deflect supersonic jets’ shockwaves so the planes can be flown over land. Federal laws prohibit planes from breaking the sound barrier over land because of problems caused by sonic booms.

Today’s commercial aircraft travel at about 550 MPH. The speed of sound is about 767 at sea level and slower at higher altitudes.

The X-Plane won’t make its first flight until 2021, and won’t be tested over populated areas until 2023.

John Wayne Ferguson: 409-683-5226; or on Twitter @johnwferguson.


(2) comments

Steve Fouga

I wonder how NASA will enlist the volunteers. Will it be through a cold-call survey? Through the GDN?

Carlos Ponce

In the late 60s and 70s I used to hear sonic booms all the time living in unincorporated Galveston County north of Jamaica Beach, south of Alta Loma. I just chalked it up to Ellington fly boys. Now I just hear my neighbor firing off what sounds like a cannon.

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