A pair of NASA F-18s jets will begin flying over Galveston Island and the Gulf of Mexico next week as the space agency begins a two-week project to gauge public reactions to so-called quiet sonic booms.
The tests were first announced in March. As many as eight flights a day will occur between Nov. 5 and Nov. 16, officials said.
Some 400 local residents have been recruited to listen for sonic booms, or “sonic thumps,” and to report what they hear, or don’t hear, to NASA through a website.
“We’re very pleased with the response that we’ve gotten,” said Peter Coen, the project manager for NASA’s commercial supersonic technology project.
The agency is testing how the public reacts to sonic booms that are produced by a special maneuver performed by the jets. The “quiet” booms should sound like distant thunder, officials said.
The tests are part of NASA’s development of a quieter supersonic jet, which the agency hopes to begin test flying by 2022. The ultimate goal of the research is to produce commercial airplanes that can move at supersonic speeds without making loud noises when breaking the sound barrier.
Federal laws prohibit planes from breaking the sound barrier over populated areas, making planes that can move that fast impractical for commercial uses.
The tests in Galveston will collect data about the sounds people hear. But islanders also are being used to gauge how effective NASA’s public outreach and education efforts are, Coen said. Researchers will use the public input taken here and apply lessons learned to future tests conducted in other, more populated areas of the county.
The start of the community tests have been two years in the making, Coen said.
“We’re very excited,” Coen said.
About 50 NASA employees will be deployed to the Galveston area to help conduct the test. While flights will take off from Ellington Airport in Houston, there will be NASA flight controllers at Scholes International Airport, Coen said.
Some NASA employees might also be spotted around Galveston County carrying portable sound monitoring equipment, Coen said.
The flights will happen on eight days over the testing period, officials said. The planes will for the most part be hard to see from the ground because of the altitude required to perform the sonic boom maneuver, Coen said. Some observers might spot odd-looking contrails over the Gulf of Mexico, however.
The space agency has set up an education website for people who are interested in the project. That website includes a page where people who are not officially participating in the sound surveys can report things they hear, Coen said.
The website is nasa.gov/qsf18.
After the testing is complete, NASA will publish a report on its findings and experiences. That report will come out some time in 2019, Coen said.