Acoustic testing system can simulate the deafening noise of a rocket launch

Southwest Research Institute’s aerospace acoustic test chamber can now simulate the complex and harsh acoustic environment associated with the thunderous noise of a rocket launch to ensure that space systems can endure blastoff conditions. The test chamber is the newest addition to SwRI’s 74,000-square-foot Space System Spacecraft and Payload Processing Facility, created to rapidly respond to customers needing to design, assemble and test spacecraft, particularly small satellites.

“During lift off, rocket engine vibrations compress the air inside the rocket fairing, pulsating around the spacecraft stored within,” said Institute Engineer Kelly Smith, who oversees the facility. “During takeoff, complex acoustic waves create turbulence in the fairing, conditions we can now simulate in a test chamber right here at SwRI.”

Sound waves emitted during a rocket launch are so powerful that they are hazardous to humans and can damage a spacecraft and its payload before reaching outer space. Shaker tables can evaluate vibration effects. Evaluating whether a spacecraft can withstand powerful sound waves requires an equally powerful acoustic system, which now exists at SwRI.

The high-decibel acoustic chamber’s six speakers collectively produce up to 150 decibels, which can instantly perforate an eardrum. Each speaker is about 3.5 feet tall and weighs 1,617 pounds. All six are housed inside a high-decibel acoustic testing chamber at SwRI’s San Antonio headquarters.

“These are not ordinary speakers that you’d find at a concert,” Smith said. “These tests help ensure that systems don’t fail, with potentially mission-critical and financial implications.”

During testing, the speakers typically encircle a test article but can be moved into custom configurations, depending on the application.

“It’s rare for systems like these to exist at a research and development institute like SwRI,” Smith said. “Normally, these evaluations require third-party testing at significant expense and involve moving hardware offsite, risking damage during transport. Keeping as much of the environmental testing inhouse minimizes risk and costs.”

The system is now conducting inhouse testing, which is available to external clients.

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