What is so Special About Breaking the Sound Barrier?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

The speed of sound is the speed at which sound vibrations move through a medium. In air at sea level, this speed is about 340.29 m/s (761 mph or 1,225 km/h). The speed of sound varies with the temperature of the air, but is almost completely independent of the density. Breaking the sound barrier was a major goal of aviation for its first 50 or so years, until it was eventually achieved on 14 October 1947 by airman Chuck Yeager flying in a Bell XS-1, now on display at the National Air and Space Museum.

A jet breaking the sound barrier.
A jet breaking the sound barrier.

The first self-propelled object to break the sound barrier were German V-2 missiles launched during WWII. By 1944, these missiles regularly traveled at four times the speed of sound (Mach 4) during descent. When missiles, airplanes, or any other fast object is breaking the sound barrier, it causes a sonic boom, a loud boom caused by colliding pressure waves around the object. Thus, when these missiles were launched en masse, the air was filled with the noise of sonic booms.

The Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor uses supercruise technology to sustain supersonic speeds without having to use afterburners.
The Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor uses supercruise technology to sustain supersonic speeds without having to use afterburners.

As an object travels through the air, it gets surrounded by spheres of pressure, caused by the displacement it creates in the air due to its movement. As an object moves faster and faster, it starts to catch up with these pressure spheres in one direction, causing them to be compressed ahead of the craft. A measurement would find that the air is much denser than typical air, while the air behind the craft is thinner. When the craft is breaking the sound barrier -- moving faster than about 761 mph -- the air in front compresses so hard that the pressure spheres begin to get left behind the plane. They can't expand out in front of the plane faster than they are being generated.

Older fighters, like the F-16 Fighting Falcon, need to light their afterburners to go supersonic.
Older fighters, like the F-16 Fighting Falcon, need to light their afterburners to go supersonic.

In the old days, breaking the sound barrier was a big deal -- it led to a loss of control in flight and major vibrations. Modern aircraft, which include features like swept wings, optimal fuselage shape, and stronger engines, can make it through the sound barrier without much trouble at all. Most of the time, it isn't even noticeable. Breaking the sound barrier is usually something for military aircraft, as few commercial aircraft have top speeds over the speed of sound.

In the late 1950s, many aircraft companies thought that supersonic aircraft would be the next logical step in air travel, leading to the development of craft such as the Concorde and the Tupolev Tu-144, which entered service in the 1970s. Some futurists expect supersonic aircraft to make a comeback in the late 2010s.

A supersonic missile is technically any missile that travels faster than Mach 1, as a number of air to air missiles do.
A supersonic missile is technically any missile that travels faster than Mach 1, as a number of air to air missiles do.
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments

anon999172

Phaedrus: It was a car out of alignment.

Phaedrus

My dad once drove a car on a deserted stretch of highway and got up to 80 mph. The car started shaking really bad and he was having trouble steering it straight. Once he got up to 85 mph, though, everything became smooth again. He said that was the same idea behind a plane breaking the sound barrier. There was a point below that speed where all of the outside forces would threaten to tear the jet apart. Once the plane broke the sound barrier, however, everything stabilized again. The problem was building a plane strong enough to resist all of that turbulence before reaching 781 mph.

Ruggercat68

I think the special thing about a plane breaking the sound barrier was that it became possible through technology. The speed of sound was like the 4 minute mile in foot racing. No one thought it was physically possible to break that record. When Chuck Yeager finally did it, the country realized other breakthroughs were possible. It was a tremendous morale booster for post-war America.

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