The sonic boom problem - Katerina Kaouri
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It did not take long to realize that the by-products of supersonic flight are far from pleasant; supersonic flights produce sonic booms! What is a sonic boom? It 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. You can hear sonic booms (from an F-16) in this video.
Sonic booms from early supersonic flights frequently occurred over inhabited areas, causing many complaints. These complaints were one of the key factors for the cancellation, in 1971, of the U.S. SST program. As of 1973, civil supersonic flights are forbidden above land.
The British-French Concorde made its maiden flight in 1969, and from 1976 it flew transatlantic flights routinely. Concorde was however terminated in October 2003—its technological success was never questioned but it was noisy and required a lot of fuel, it had never been a highly profitable project. You can learn more about the Concorde here.
However, it is probable that civil supersonic aviation will be reinstated in the future, as the travel market is steadily growing, both for leisure and business purposes. You can read more in these recent articles by BBC and Slate, or watch this video by USA Today. However, "Lessening sonic booms… is the most significant hurdle to reintroducing commercial supersonic flight," says Peter Coen, manager of the High Speed Project in NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, who is leading teams of scientists intensely researching sonic booms. Any new supersonic aircraft should be quieter than its predecessors and sonic boom research is still booming, with researchers around the world testing new vehicle design concepts and performance options to reduce emissions and noise. K. Kaouri was one of the researchers in the Sonic Boom European Research (SOBER) program where as part of a large team of engineers, physicists, mathematicians, and aircraft experts investigated decision tools for determining acceptable operating routes for supersonic aircraft that minimize annoyance from sonic booms. The NASA research effort on sonic boom is described here.
What else, other than a supersonic jet can cause a sonic boom? Click here and find some answers. Now, watch as this volcanic eruption produces quite a reaction! The mantis shrimp (which is not really a shrimp) is a predator that uses sound to catch its prey. Ocean Conservation Research provides a sound byte of its snaps and an explanation of why these help the shrimp! BBC Weird Nature gives live footage of the pistol shrimp in action, watch and learn! What about the sauropods? Were there really dinosaurs that could produce sonic booms with their tails? Visit the AMNH site: Supersonic Sauropods! Find out more about these ancient beasts. Other things that break the sound barrier and create sonic booms include: bullets, a space shuttle, meteorites, and bullwhips.
How is it to see a sonic boom? Watch this video and observe some “live” sonic booms! Then take a minute and view this astounding video called Supersonic Flight, Sonic Booms. Visit NASA and read their Fact Sheet about sonic booms. The physics behind a sonic boom is quite extensive, take a minute and learn more. Still confused? Visit this page. You can also download a popularized presentation on sonic booms by Katerina Kaouri. It is appropriate for anyone with basic physics knowledge (and could be used as part of a school lesson on waves, sound and sonic booms). Also, in this TEDx talk (from 5:52 until 9:10) you can watch a short introduction on sonic booms.
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