Updated March 2013
Credit: Ensign John Gay, USS Constellation, US Navy.
Explanation: Many people have heard a sonic boom, but
few have seen one. When an airplane travels at a speed
faster than sound, density waves of sound emitted by the plane
cannot precede the plane, and so accumulate in a cone behind
the plane. When this shock wave passes, a listener hears all
at once the sound emitted over a longer period as a sonic
boom. As a plane accelerates to just break the sound barrier,
however, an unusual cloud might form. The origin of this cloud
is still debated. A leading theory is that a drop in air
pressure at the plane described by the Prandtl-Glauert
Singularity occurs so that moist air condenses there to form
water droplets. Above, a Boeing F/A-18 Hornet was photographed
just as it broke the sound barrier. Large meteors and the
space shuttle frequently produce audible sonic booms before
they are slowed below sound speed by the Earth's atmosphere.
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