# How can shock waves travel faster than sound?

Gold Member
Shock wave is caused by the disturbance of air by the airplane. When it propagate the mechanism should be the same as that of longitudinal sound wave. Why sometimes it can travel faster than sound?
(also see: http://physics.info/shock/ )

HallsofIvy
Homework Helper
Where did you get the idea that shock waves, in air, can move faster than the speed of sound?

Why sometimes it can travel faster than sound?
A shockwave always travels faster than the speed of sound, when it slows to the speed of sound it is then normal sound waves. I am not definite about why it is faster than sound but I imagine there is increased energy density "pushing" the sound waves faster than they travel normally.

CWatters
Homework Helper
Gold Member
If you have an aircraft travelling at twice the speed of sound the point at which sound from the aircraft reaches the ground also moves at twice the speed of sound along the ground. But that doesn't mean the sound waves from the aircraft move that fast downwards.

PS: Waves hitting a beach at an angle also appear to travel along the beach faster than the original wave

davenn
Gold Member
why seems to be hard to answer
its just is

this page states they always are and their speed varies with amplitude. Also states that the speed drops off quickly and its speed will lower to that of sound and the sound wave and shock wave will merge

http://physics.info/shock/

Last edited:
sophiecentaur
Gold Member
2020 Award
This is just a matter of definitions. My understanding is that the shock wave (say in front of a fast aeroplane) is only present very close to the front of the plane because the plane is actually pushing molecules forward, faster than the speed of sound. Once the shock wave has been 'shed' from the plane, you just have an impulsive disturbance (sound) wave, travelling at the speed of sound.

anorlunda
Staff Emeritus
Wikipedia has a pretty good description of shock waves.

Gold Member
This is just a matter of definitions. My understanding is that the shock wave (say in front of a fast aeroplane) is only present very close to the front of the plane because the plane is actually pushing molecules forward, faster than the speed of sound. Once the shock wave has been 'shed' from the plane, you just have an impulsive disturbance (sound) wave, traveling at the speed of sound.
Can we say that because wave travel at the speed of sound relative to the average velocity of the medium. If the medium travels at supersonic speed the shock wave also travel that fast relative to a stationary observer?

Drakkith
Staff Emeritus
Can we say that because wave travel at the speed of sound relative to the average velocity of the medium. If the medium travels at supersonic speed the shock wave also travel that fast relative to a stationary observer?
I'm not sure I understand what you're asking. Are you aware that a shock wave is, by definition, a disturbance that travels faster than sound through a medium?

Avaron Cooper
Gold Member
I'm not sure I understand what you're asking. Are you aware that a shock wave is, by definition, a disturbance that travels faster than sound through a medium?
when I first ask this question I assume the medium doesn't have net movement and just wonder how shock waves travels faster than sound. There are different replies here and now I am not sure whether the medium itself is pushed by airplane and moves in high speed.

Drakkith
Staff Emeritus
when I first ask this question I assume the medium doesn't have net movement and just wonder how shock waves travels faster than sound. There are different replies here and now I am not sure whether the medium itself is pushed by airplane and moves in high speed.
The shock wave is the molecules of the medium (air molecules) traveling faster than the speed of sound relative to the surrounding air. When we refer to the medium, we usually mean the bulk of the material that an object or disturbance travels through. While the shock wave is composed of fast-moving air molecules, I wouldn't say that the medium is moving.

sophiecentaur
Gold Member
2020 Award
I wouldn't say that the medium is moving.
It's just a way of looking at things, in the end but I would say that, because it is being moved / pushed along in front of the plane, it is moving faster than a sound wave would. I guess you could argue that the air that any plane encounters will return to the 'hole' left behind, as it travels through it. Drag will always cause turbulence, so the air won't return to the same place that it was originally, of course. When there is a shock wave, however, I would suggest that some air is actually being carried forward on the front of the plane because it can't get out of the way in time (as in sub-sonic flight).
But, as in so many PF threads, we tend to argue about these things when they aren't really as relevant or useful as the description that good ol'Maths gives us.

sophiecentaur
Gold Member
2020 Award
The only reference to supersonic shock waves I am familiar would be the overpressure from nuclear testing.

Overpressure
http://www.atomicarchive.com/Effects/effects4.shtml
Well, in that case, there is a massive increase in volume and then the surrounding air comes in from the side - giving the mushroom. So the shock wave definitely does 'move' volume of air before equilibrium is established again.
In a situation where shock waves are produced, the medium (air) is not behaving linearly so the simple speed of sound calculation wouldn't be expected to apply. When the positive pressure is greater, or close to 1Bar, the least 'negative' pressure can only be zero Bar. The tables in the reference are interesting.

I can not find a good link to it anymore but what I had read before was that the supersonic overpressure was specific to a ground force effect of surface level detonations. Not certain if this might have been predated to before the H-bomb though. Imagine the explosion being a bubble, where the bottom half hits the ground and is reflected back up into the top half of the bubble. From this you have a second shock wave pushing behind the first shock wave.

Drakkith
Staff Emeritus
It's just a way of looking at things, in the end but I would say that, because it is being moved / pushed along in front of the plane, it is moving faster than a sound wave would.
Saying the medium is moving, to me, implies that the air the plane is flying through is moving relative to the ground.

When there is a shock wave, however, I would suggest that some air is actually being carried forward on the front of the plane because it can't get out of the way in time (as in sub-sonic flight).
As I understand it, that is exactly what is happening. The plane is flying faster than sound so the air literally cannot get out of the way fast enough and ends up being accelerated and compressed, forming a shock wave.

sophiecentaur
Gold Member
2020 Award
and compressed, forming a shock wave
. . . . and carried forward. ??

Drakkith
Staff Emeritus
. . . . and carried forward. ??
Carried forward by the plane? Sure.

sophiecentaur
davenn
Gold Member
The only reference to supersonic shock waves I am familiar would be the overpressure from nuclear testing.

Overpressure
http://www.atomicarchive.com/Effects/effects4.shtml
not just nuclear blasts, but any blast .... its seen so often even in relatively small blasts done on programs like Mythbusters
They often slow down the high speed cam so you can see the shockwave moving out

anorlunda
Staff Emeritus
The plane is flying faster than sound so the air literally cannot get out of the way fast enough and ends up being accelerated and compressed, forming a shock wave.
This photo make Drakkith's words seem graphic.

But photos like this make me wonder about the shock wave rapidly slowing to sonic speed. If it did so, I think the trailing front would be parabolic, not straight lines. Every photo I've seen shows the shock wave front propagating as a straight line until it intercepts the ground.

This drawing also helps.

Last edited:
Drakkith
Staff Emeritus
But photos like this make me wonder about the shock wave rapidly slowing to sonic speed. If it did so, I think the trailing front would be parabolic, not straight lines. Every photo I've seen shows the shock wave front propagating as a straight line until it intercepts the ground.
From wiki:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shock_wave#In_supersonic_flows

Shock waves are not conventional sound waves; a shock wave takes the form of a very sharp change in the gas properties. Shock waves in air are heard as a loud "crack" or "snap" noise. Over longer distances, a shock wave can change from a nonlinear wave into a linear wave, degenerating into a conventional sound wave as it heats the air and loses energy. The sound wave is heard as the familiar "thud" or "thump" of a sonic boom, commonly created by the supersonic flight of aircraft.

From your picture, it looks like the overlapping of many different sound waves creates the straight lines. This would mean that the line is not a shock wave, it is just the constructive interference of many different sound waves created by the dissipating shock wave over time.

Consider the following. As a plane travels past mach 1, the sound waves generated by the plane can no longer propagate forwards faster than the plane. So each moment in time a new sound wave is created ahead of the existing wavefronts. Each new sound wave would then overlap and interfere with the existing sound waves and create a new wavefront that travels outwards from the source. Since the source is moving, this wavefront takes the shape of a cone. And what does the point of the cone look like as a 2d shape? A triangle with straight sides.

In other words, while a sound wave is circular in shape (spherical), the outermost edge of the overlapping pattern of many soundwaves created by an object traveling faster than sound in a medium is a straight line (aka a cone, not a sphere).

nsaspook
The F-14 was famous for low level supersonic passes over water.
Shock wave below the plane:

Water vapor image of shock wave.

Last edited:
Gold Member
Shock waves can persist for a great distance coming off of an airplane depending on their strength and the ambient conditions. In the example of the second schlieren/shadowgraph, a my of those lines are definitely shocks, though some may be other types of waves that are strong enough to be seen.

In reality, though, you have to think about this kind of differently from how some people here have been trying to think about it. The study of nonlinear wave phenomena is very interesting but it boils down to this: a shock travels into a medium faster than the speed of sound in that medium. However, the shock accelerates the gas as it passes through, and therefore the gas through which it is propagating has a nonzero velocity. Relative to the gas from which the shock is advancing, the speed is not supersonic.