Supersonic speed is the speed of an object that is faster than the speed of sound, measured at about 768 miles per hour at sea level. Supersonic speed is one of the four “regimes of flight” (subsonic, transonic, supersonic, hypersonic).

Aircraft speed is typically measured by its Mach number, which is velocity relative to speed of sound. Mach 1 is known as the speed of sound. Supersonic speeds usually range from Mach 1.2 to Mach 5!

What Is a Sonic Boom?

A sonic boom is a sound created when an object travels through the air at supersonic speed or faster. Sonic booms create a large amount of energy and sound like an explosion or clap. Bullet shots and whip cracks are well-known examples of small-scale sonic booms.

Supersonic flight over land is generally prohibited as sonic booms from large supersonic aircraft are incredibly powerful and can potentially awaken people or cause structural damage.

Notably, a sonic boom does not occur when an object goes supersonic, and it does not emanate in all directions. Instead, sonic booms are continuous sounds (if energy is provided) that affect a conical region behind the traveling object.

A visual representation of a sonic boom’s waves,
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Uses of Supersonic Aircraft

A supersonic aircraft is any aircraft that can fly at supersonic speeds. The aerodynamics of supersonic flight are significantly different than subsonic flight. Sustained supersonic flight requires increased engine power and streamlined airframe design (hence the general slender look of most supersonic aircraft).

Nowadays, supersonic aircraft are used primarily for military or research purposes. However, there have been two examples of supersonic planes for civilian use as airliners, the Tupolev Tu-144 and the Concorde. The disruptive nature of supersonic flight prevents the use of supersonic aircraft in common flight environments above ground.

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