Space Shuttle Launch and Sound Suppression

The Space Shuttle’s first flight (STS-1) in 1981 was considered a great success as almost all the technical and scientific goals were achieved. However, post flight analysis showed one potentially fatal problem: 16 heat shield tiles had been destroyed and another 148 damaged. How did that happen? The culprit was quickly determined to be sound. During launch the shuttle’s main engine and the SRBs (Solid Rocket Boosters) produce intense sound waves which cause strong vibrations. A sound suppression system was needed to protect the shuttle from acoustically induced damage such as cracks and mechanical fatigue. But how do you suppress the sound coming from a jet engine?

Let’s take a step back. What is the source of this sound? When the hot exhaust gas meets the ambient air, mixing occurs. This leads to the formation of a large number of eddies. The small-scale eddies close to the engine are responsible for high frequency noise, while the large-scale eddies that appear downstream cause intense low-frequency noise. Lighthill showed that the power P (in W) of the sound increases with the jet velocity v (in m/s) and the size s (in m) of the eddies:

P = K * D * c-5 * s2 * v8

with K being a constant, D the exhaust gas density and c the speed of sound. Note the extremely strong dependence of acoustic power on jet velocity: if you double the velocity, the power increases by a factor of 256. Such a strong relationship is very unusual in physics. The dependence on eddy size is also significant, doubling the size leads to a quadrupling in power. The formula tells us what we must do to effectively suppress sound: reduce jet velocity and the size of the eddies. Water injection into the exhaust gas achieves both. The water droplets absorb kinetic energy from the gas molecules, thus slowing them down. At the same time, the water breaks down the eddies.

During the second Space Shuttle launch (STS-2) a water injection system was used to suppress potentially catastrophic acoustic vibrations. This proved to be successful, it reduced the sound level by 10 – 20 dB (depending on location), and accordingly was used during every launch since then. But large amounts of water are needed to accomplish this reduction. The tank at the launch pad holds about 300,000 gallons. The flow starts at T minus 6.6 seconds and last for about 20 seconds. The peak flow rate is roughly 15,000 gallons per seconds. That’s a lot of water!

The video below shows a test run of the sound suppression system:

Sources and further reading:


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