Physics and Chemistry

Light, Sound, and Other Waves

When is a sonic boom heard?

As long as an airborne object, such as a plane, is moving below the speed of sound (called Mach 1), the disturbed air remains well in front of the craft. But as the craft passes Mach 1 and is flying at supersonic speeds, a sharp air pressure rise occurs in front of the craft. In a sense, the air molecules are crowded together and collectively impact. What is heard is a claplike thunder called a sonic boom or a supersonic bang. There are many shocks coming from a supersonic aircraft, but these shocks usually combine to form two main shocks, one coming from the nose and one from the aft end of the aircraft. Each of the shocks moves at a different velocity. If the time difference between the two shock waves is greater than 0.10 seconds apart, two sonic booms will be heard. This usually occurs when an aircraft ascends or descends quickly. If the aircraft moves more slowly, the two booms will sound like only one boom to the listener.


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