Physics » Sound and the Physics of Hearing » Doppler Effect and Sonic Booms

Sonic Booms to Bow Wakes

Sonic Booms to Bow Wakes

What happens to the sound produced by a moving source, such as a jet airplane, that approaches or even exceeds the speed of sound? The answer to this question applies not only to sound but to all other waves as well.

Suppose a jet airplane is coming nearly straight at you, emitting a sound of frequency \({f}_{s}\). The greater the plane’s speed \({v}_{s}\), the greater the Doppler shift and the greater the value observed for \({f}_{\text{obs}}\). Now, as \({v}_{s}\) approaches the speed of sound, \({f}_{\text{obs}}\) approaches infinity, because the denominator in \({f}_{\text{obs}}={f}_{s}\left(\cfrac{{v}_{w}}{{v}_{w}\phantom{\rule{0.25em}{0ex}}±\phantom{\rule{0.25em}{0ex}}{v}_{s}}\right)\) approaches zero.

At the speed of sound, this result means that in front of the source, each successive wave is superimposed on the previous one because the source moves forward at the speed of sound. The observer gets them all at the same instant, and so the frequency is infinite. (Before airplanes exceeded the speed of sound, some people argued it would be impossible because such constructive superposition would produce pressures great enough to destroy the airplane.) If the source exceeds the speed of sound, no sound is received by the observer until the source has passed, so that the sounds from the approaching source are mixed with those from it when receding. This mixing appears messy, but something interesting happens—a sonic boom is created. (See this figure.)

There is constructive interference along the lines shown (a cone in three dimensions) from similar sound waves arriving there simultaneously. This superposition forms a disturbance called a sonic boom, a constructive interference of sound created by an object moving faster than sound. Inside the cone, the interference is mostly destructive, and so the sound intensity there is much less than on the shock wave. An aircraft creates two sonic booms, one from its nose and one from its tail. (See this figure.)

During television coverage of space shuttle landings, two distinct booms could often be heard. These were separated by exactly the time it would take the shuttle to pass by a point. Observers on the ground often do not see the aircraft creating the sonic boom, because it has passed by before the shock wave reaches them, as seen in this figure. If the aircraft flies close by at low altitude, pressures in the sonic boom can be destructive and break windows as well as rattle nerves. Because of how destructive sonic booms can be, supersonic flights are banned over populated areas of the United States.

Sonic booms are one example of a broader phenomenon called bow wakes. A bow wake, such as the one in this figure, is created when the wave source moves faster than the wave propagation speed. Water waves spread out in circles from the point where created, and the bow wake is the familiar V-shaped wake trailing the source. A more exotic bow wake is created when a subatomic particle travels through a medium faster than the speed of light travels in that medium. (In a vacuum, the maximum speed of light will be \(c=3\text{.}\text{00}×{\text{10}}^{8}\phantom{\rule{0.25em}{0ex}}\text{m/s}\); in the medium of water, the speed of light is closer to \(0.75c\). If the particle creates light in its passage, that light spreads on a cone with an angle indicative of the speed of the particle, as illustrated in this figure. Such a bow wake is called Cerenkov radiation and is commonly observed in particle physics.

Doppler shifts and sonic booms are interesting sound phenomena that occur in all types of waves. They can be of considerable use. For example, the Doppler shift in ultrasound can be used to measure blood velocity, while police use the Doppler shift in radar (a microwave) to measure car velocities. In meteorology, the Doppler shift is used to track the motion of storm clouds; such “Doppler Radar” can give velocity and direction and rain or snow potential of imposing weather fronts. In astronomy, we can examine the light emitted from distant galaxies and determine their speed relative to ours. As galaxies move away from us, their light is shifted to a lower frequency, and so to a longer wavelength—the so-called red shift. Such information from galaxies far, far away has allowed us to estimate the age of the universe (from the Big Bang) as about 14 billion years.

Check Your Understanding

Why did scientist Christian Doppler observe musicians both on a moving train and also from a stationary point not on the train?


Doppler needed to compare the perception of sound when the observer is stationary and the sound source moves, as well as when the sound source and the observer are both in motion.

Check Your Understanding

Describe a situation in your life when you might rely on the Doppler shift to help you either while driving a car or walking near traffic.


If I am driving and I hear Doppler shift in an ambulance siren, I would be able to tell when it was getting closer and also if it has passed by. This would help me to know whether I needed to pull over and let the ambulance through.

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