What is a sonic boom?

According to NASA:

A sonic boom is the thunder-like noise a person on the ground hears when an aircraft or other type of aerospace vehicle flies overhead faster than the speed of sound or supersonic.

Air reacts like a fluid to supersonic objects. As objects travel through the air, the air molecules are pushed aside with great force and this forms a shock wave much like a boat creates a bow wave. The bigger and heavier the aircraft, the more air it displaces.

The Cause

The shock wave forms a cone of pressurized air molecules which move outward and rearward in all directions and extend to the ground. As the cone spreads across the landscape along the flight path, they create a continuous sonic boom along the full width of the cone's base. The sharp release of pressure, after the buildup by the shock wave, is heard as the sonic boom.

The change in air pressure associated with a sonic boom is only a few pounds per square foot -- about the same pressure change experienced riding an elevator down two or three floors. It is the rate of change, the sudden onset of the pressure change, that makes the sonic boom audible.

All aircraft generate two cones, at the nose and at the tail. They are usually of similar strength and the time interval between the two as they reach the ground is primarily dependent on the size of the aircraft and its altitude. Most people on the ground cannot distinguish between the two and they are usually heard as a single sonic boom. Sonic booms created by vehicles the size and mass of the space shuttle are very distinguishable and two distinct booms are easily heard.

According to

The speed of sound is 761 MPH at sea level.

The term sound barrier is often associated with supersonic flight. In particular, "breaking the sound barrier" is the process of accelerating through Mach 1 and going from subsonic to supersonic speeds. The term originated in the 1940s when researchers discovered a large increase in drag that seemed to indicate that an infinite amount of thrust would be needed to fly at the speed of sound.

In other words, some believed that a physical barrier existed that would prevent an aircraft from ever being able to travel at supersonic speeds.

Since there obviously is no such barrier, the term sound barrier is outdated and really should not be used any more. Nevertheless, it has become a popular part of human speech.

One of the most common questions we receive is how fast is the speed of sound, and as was pointed out earlier, there is no single value to quote.

The speed of sound, also known as Mach 1, changes throughout the atmosphere based on the temperature at any given altitude. Probably the most important value to remember, however, is the speed of sound at sea level. Based on the standard atmospheric model, this value has been defined to be:

* 1,116.4 ft/s* 340.3 m/s* 761.2 mph* 1,225.1 km/h* 661.5 knots

If you were to reach Mach 1, or "break the sound barrier," at sea level, the above speed is how fast you would have to travel in order to do so.

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