NASA this week will mail letters to thousands of Galveston County residents asking for volunteers to participate in a project to study sonic booms.

The solicitation letters are seeking to sign up 500 people who will listen for noise in early November, when NASA will be inducing “quiet” sonic booms over the Gulf of Mexico using F-18 jets.

The booms and the sound testing are part of the early stages of development of a new type of plane that can fly at supersonic speeds without causing a loud noise while breaking the sound barrier. NASA and Lockheed Martin, the aeronautics company, earlier this year agreed to developing the so-called X-Plane, a commercial jet capable of breaking the sound barrier.

Earlier this year, NASA and the city announced Galveston would the site of a series of tests to measure public reactions to sonic booms.

Volunteers in Galveston County will be asked to listen for the sonic booms during a two-week testing period and to submit their observation to NASA through a web application.

The letters NASA is sending out this week will include an invitation for people to go to a website to sign up. The letters also will include a no-strings-attached payment of $2, just for opening the letter, said Jonathan Rathsam, a research engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center, which is helping plan the testing.

NASA will send the letters to residents in Galveston, Santa Fe, Dickinson, La Marque, Texas City and other places in the county. The official survey site encompasses about 60 square miles, Rathsam said.

A large part of the process NASA and researchers are going through now is figuring out the best way to recruit subjects and inform people about the sonic boom testing, said Peter Coen, the project manager for NASA’s Commercial Supersonic Technology division.

In coming years, as the new quiet jets are developed, NASA will need a process to repeat in other populated areas, Coen said.

“We’re trying to learn for the future tests how much and what type of notifications we’ll need to do,” Coen said.

NASA will choose volunteers on a first-come, first-serve basis, officials said.

There are few requirements to be a volunteer. A person needs to be age 18 or older and live and work in the county during the testing. They also must be able to use email, through a computer or a phone, to submit feedback to researchers.

NASA will pay volunteers $50 for participating in the two-week trial.

Volunteers will be divided into two groups, one in which members know when the sound tests will occur and another in which members won’t know the exact timing.

At the end of the testing period, volunteers will be asked to submit notes about what they heard, or didn’t hear. NASA will compare the survey results to the information it collects using sound monitoring stationed around the county.

It’s important for volunteers to report their observations, even if it seems like nothing happened, Rathsam said.

“If someone doesn’t respond to the survey, we have no records,” he said. “We need to know if somebody didn’t hear it.”

There will be other components to NASA’s outreach during the sonic boom testing. The testing group will be at the Wings Over Houston airshow in late October to tell people about the tests.

The testing group also will work with local schools, including Austin Middle School in Galveston, which has a magnet program focused on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, education.

Students will learn about sound as part of a curriculum designed around the sonic boom testing, Rathsam said.

The outreach efforts might be one of the most apparent signs of the sonic boom testing because the jets aren’t likely to be very visible from Galveston.

The planes will take off from Ellington Airport in Houston and the special maneuver the jets do to induce a sonic boom starts at 50,000 feet and ends at 30,000 feet, so the planes might not be very visible to the naked eye, Coen said.

Some people might see contrails, streams of condensation left behind by the planes, as a sign they’ve been flying.

The sonic booms will sound like distant thunder, Coen said.

“These sounds are at such a low level, depending on such a low level you may not notice them at all,” he said.

The testing will begin sometime early in November. 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

Mark Johnson

I would like some details on why NASA needs to spend (most likely) billions of dollars on developing such an aircraft.

Steve Fouga

Mark, I can't give details, but I can give the general philosophy. Current aircraft can't, or aren't allowed to, fly faster than the speed of sound over populated areas because of their annoying and even damaging "sonic booms." This means that speed of transport -- of passengers and cargoes -- is limited.

Military aircraft flying faster than sound leave a tell-tale trail of their presence due to the overpressure of their shock wave and, of course, the sound of the sonic boom. So even a stealthy aircraft is not stealthy when supersonic.

For these reasons, NASA and industry are trying to develop aircraft that don't create sonic booms.

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