EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE — A series of sonic booms will rattle Edwards Air Force Base and nearby communities in coming weeks as NASA scientists conduct tests aimed at producing quieter supersonic passenger jets.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration issued a warning about the booms on Monday so people living and working near Edwards will be less frightened by the sharp noises, which sometime cause buildings to shake as if an earthquake had occurred.
"Something on the edge of a shelf may fall off, but there's not going to be any structural damage," said NASA spokesman Don Haley. "Nobody's going to be hurt."
Some people at and near Edwards are likely to shrug off the booms, slated to begin in early February and conclude in March, because supersonic military planes and returning space shuttles commonly break the sound barrier near the base.
Ironically, NASA's noisy tests are designed to help aerospace companies produce a new generation of quieter supersonic jets that might be able to fly at top speeds over populated areas. Such a plane could replace the Concorde, which carries passengers from the East Coast to Europe, but only breaks the sound barrier over water.
"If we can minimize that sonic boom to the point where it's maybe a thunder-like rumble rather than a sharp crack, maybe that plane could be flown over land," said Haley.
He said the sonic boom studies, focusing on six to 10 flights, will be the first of this magnitude and duration in about 30 years.
NASA will use SR-71 Blackbird spy planes, on loan from the Air Force, to break the sound barrier, while engineers in chase planes and on the ground record the data. The SR-71 and one of its companion jets will fly at an altitude of at least 30,000 feet, at speeds between Mach 1.25 and Mach 1.8. Mach 1 is the speed of sound.
The sonic booms are likely to be heard by base employees and people in the nearby towns of Rosamond, Mojave, Boron and California City, but Haley said the noise probably will not carry to Lancaster and Palmdale.
Sonic booms are created when a speeding aircraft pushes aside air molecules in its path, forming shock waves. The sharp release of pressure from these shock waves creates the boom.
The intensity varies as a result of the size, weight and speed of the planes, as well as the altitude and weather conditions. Through the upcoming tests, NASA scientists said they hope to find ways to minimize the noise, then make that information available to companies trying to build better supersonic passenger jets.
Edwards is the only place that has a large air corridor reserved for supersonic jets and sophisticated equipment to collect data from such flights, Haley said. "We realize there are people on the ground who are going to hear the sonic booms," he said. "But there isn't any other place we can do it."