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Ilyass Elharti
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The Science Behind Sonic Booms: How Supersonic Flight Breaks the Sound Barrier


Sonic Boom: What It Is and How It Happens




Introduction




Have you ever heard a loud bang or rumble in the sky, like a thunderclap or an explosion? If so, you might have experienced a sonic boom, a phenomenon that occurs when an object travels faster than the speed of sound. In this article, we will explain what a sonic boom is, what causes it, what types and effects it has, and some examples and applications of sonic booms in different fields.




sonic boom


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What is a sonic boom?




A sonic boom is a sound associated with shock waves created when an object travels through the air faster than the speed of sound. The speed of sound varies depending on the temperature, pressure, and humidity of the air, but it is about 343 meters per second (767 miles per hour) at sea level. When an object exceeds this speed, it creates a pressure difference between the air in front of it and the air behind it, forming a cone-shaped shock wave that radiates outward from the object. The shock wave compresses and heats up the air molecules, producing a loud noise that can be heard on the ground as a sonic boom.


What causes a sonic boom?




A sonic boom can be caused by any object that travels faster than the speed of sound, such as a bullet, a whip, or a meteor. However, the most common source of sonic booms is aircraft or spacecraft that fly at supersonic speeds (faster than Mach 1, or the speed of sound). For example, fighter jets, rockets, and space shuttles can generate sonic booms as they fly through the atmosphere. The intensity and duration of the sonic boom depend on several factors, such as the shape, size, speed, altitude, and angle of the object, as well as the weather conditions and the distance from the observer.


Types and Effects of Sonic Booms




N-wave and U-wave sonic booms




There are two main types of sonic booms: N-wave and U-wave. An N-wave sonic boom is produced by an object that flies at a constant supersonic speed and creates a shock wave that resembles the letter N when plotted on a graph of pressure versus time. An N-wave sonic boom consists of two parts: a positive pressure rise followed by a negative pressure drop. The positive part is louder and shorter than the negative part, creating a sharp crack followed by a rumble.


A U-wave sonic boom is produced by an object that accelerates or decelerates while flying at supersonic speed, creating a shock wave that resembles the letter U when plotted on a graph of pressure versus time. A U-wave sonic boom consists of three parts: a positive pressure rise followed by a negative pressure drop followed by another positive pressure rise. The middle part is louder and longer than the other parts, creating a double boom or a thump.


Sonic boom carpet and focus




A sonic boom carpet is the area on the ground where the shock wave from an object traveling at supersonic speed can be heard. The size and shape of the sonic boom carpet depend on the altitude, speed, and trajectory of the object. The higher the object flies, the larger the sonic boom carpet becomes. The faster the object flies, the narrower the sonic boom carpet becomes. The steeper the angle of flight, the more concentrated the sonic boom carpet becomes.


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A sonic boom focus is a point on the ground where multiple shock waves from different parts of an object traveling at supersonic speed converge and create an amplified sonic boom. A sonic boom focus can occur when an object changes its direction, speed, or altitude, or when it flies over a mountain or a valley. A sonic boom focus can produce a much louder and sharper noise than a normal sonic boom, and can cause damage to buildings and windows.


Sonic boom noise and environmental impact




A sonic boom noise is the sound perceived by a human ear when a shock wave from an object traveling at supersonic speed reaches the ground. The loudness and frequency of the sonic boom noise depend on the characteristics of the shock wave and the distance from the object. The loudness of a sonic boom noise can range from 50 to 140 decibels (dB), which is equivalent to the sound of a car horn to a gunshot. The frequency of a sonic boom noise can range from 0.1 to 100 hertz (Hz), which is below the human hearing range of 20 to 20,000 Hz.


A sonic boom noise can have negative effects on humans, animals, and the environment. For humans, a sonic boom noise can cause annoyance, stress, hearing loss, sleep disturbance, and cardiovascular problems. For animals, a sonic boom noise can cause fear, panic, flight response, injury, and mortality. For the environment, a sonic boom noise can affect the natural habitats, ecosystems, and wildlife populations.


Examples and Applications of Sonic Booms




Sonic booms in aviation and aerospace




Sonic booms are common in aviation and aerospace, where many aircraft and spacecraft fly at supersonic speeds. Some examples of sonic booms in aviation and aerospace are:


  • The Concorde was a supersonic passenger jet that operated from 1976 to 2003. It could fly at Mach 2.04 (2,179 km/h or 1,354 mph) and produce a sonic boom of about 105 dB. Due to noise regulations and environmental concerns, it was only allowed to fly over water or sparsely populated areas.



  • The Space Shuttle was a reusable spacecraft that operated from 1981 to 2011. It could reach speeds of up to Mach 25 (30,625 km/h or 19,016 mph) during re-entry into the atmosphere. It produced two sonic booms of about 90 dB each, one from the nose and one from the tail.



  • The X-15 was an experimental rocket-powered aircraft that flew from 1959 to 1968. It set several speed and altitude records, reaching Mach 6.72 (8,120 km/h or 5,046 mph) and 107.96 km (66.96 mi) above sea level. It produced a sonic boom of about 120 dB.



Sonic booms in nature and science




Sonic booms are not only caused by human-made objects, but also by natural phenomena and scientific experiments. Some examples of sonic booms in nature and science are:


  • A meteor is a small piece of rock or metal that enters the Earth's atmosphere at high speed. It can create a bright trail of light called a meteor or shooting star. If it is large enough, it can also produce a sonic boom as it breaks the sound barrier. For example, the Chelyabinsk meteor that exploded over Russia in 2013 created a sonic boom of about 150 dB.



  • A volcano is an opening in the Earth's crust that erupts molten rock, gas, and ash. It can create powerful shock waves that travel faster than the speed of sound. These shock waves can produce sonic booms that can be heard hundreds of kilometers away. For example, the Krakatoa eruption in 1883 created a sonic boom that was heard as far as Australia.



  • A whip is a flexible cord or strap that is used to strike or control an animal or person. It can create a cracking sound when it is swung rapidly through the air. This sound is actually a mini sonic boom caused by the tip of the whip exceeding the speed of sound. The tip of the whip can reach speeds of up to Mach 1.5 (1,770 km/h or 1,100 mph).



Sonic booms in entertainment and culture




Sonic booms are also featured in various forms of entertainment and culture, such as movies, games, music, and art. Some examples of sonic booms in entertainment and culture are:


  • The Sonic the Hedgehog franchise is a series of video games, comics, cartoons, and movies that feature a blue anthropomorphic hedgehog named Sonic. He can run at supersonic speeds and create sonic booms as he dashes through different worlds and battles his enemies.



  • The Sonic Boom festival is an annual event that showcases contemporary classical music in Vancouver, Canada. It features concerts, workshops, lectures, and competitions that celebrate the diversity and creativity of Canadian composers and performers.



The Sonic Boom sculpture is a public art installation that was


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