Airplanes Breaking the Sound Barrier

Airplanes Breaking the Sound Barrier
October 19, 2012

Supersonic speed is a rate of travel of an object that exceeds the speed of sound (Mach 1). For objects traveling in dry air of a temperature of 20 °C (68 °F) at sea level, this speed is approximately 343 m/s, 1,125 ft/s, 768 mph, 667 knots, or 1,235 km/h. Speeds greater than five times the speed of sound (Mach 5) are often referred to as hypersonic.

Sounds are traveling vibrations in the form of pressure waves in an elastic medium. In gases, sound travels longitudinally at different speeds, mostly depending on the molecular mass and temperature of the gas, and pressure has little effect. Since air temperature and composition varies significantly with altitude, Mach numbers for aircraft may change despite a constant travel speed.

The sound source has now broken through the sound speed barrier, and is traveling at 1.4 times the speed of sound (Mach 1.4). Since the source is moving faster than the sound waves it creates, it actually leads the advancing wavefront. The sound source will pass by a stationary observer before the observer actually hears the sound it creates.

A sonic boom is the sound associated with the shock waves created by an object traveling through the air faster than the speed of sound. Sonic booms generate enormous amounts of sound energy, sounding much like an explosion. The crack of a supersonic bullet passing overhead is an example of a sonic boom in miniature.