How weather conditions affect the sound of a sonic boom

Residents hear the rumble after a SpaceX booster landing

By Candace Campos - Meteorologist

In this handout provided by NASA, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, with the Dragon spacecraft onboard, launches from pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on June 3, 2017 in Cape Canaveral, Florida (Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images).

ORLANDO, Fla. - As SpaceX increases its rocket launch rate this year, hearing sonic booms will become the norm across East Central Florida. Residents may notice that the sonic boom intensity and timing can vary from launch to launch. During each liftoff and landing, several factors are in play affecting the intensity and duration of each boom. 

A sonic boom is created when an object, like a rocket or plane, is traveling faster than the speed of sound. Sonic booms can sound as loud as an explosion, or, more quietly, like a rumble of thunder.

With the new wave of SpaceX reusable rockets on the Space Coast, single or even double sonic booms can be heard as the commercial company lands part of its rockets, called boosters, back at Cape Canaveral.

Besides the shape and size of a rocket, weather also plays a big role in how a sonic boom travels. The speed of sonic booms can be greatly affected by temperature, wind speeds and humidity. The warmer and wetter the surrounding air is, the faster the sound will travel, compared to cold and dry air.

How far a sonic boom travels also depends on the current wind speed and direction. Winds help move the sound in certain directions. For example, when a sonic boom is created on the coast, the sound will travel farther inland if the winds are moving in from the east, compared to a westerly wind.

Along with weather conditions at the surface, a gradient of temperature and humidity vertically in the atmosphere, can also influence the boom. If a temperature inversion is in place, meaning the air in the mid levels of the atmosphere is warmer than down at the Earth's surface, the sound waves from the sonic boom will bounce between the inversion and the ground. This added refraction will increase the lifespan of the sound wave. If an inversion is not present, the sound will be able to escape into the upper levels of the atmosphere much faster.

For example, when a rocket is launched at Cape Canaveral, people in the Orlando area, will have a better chance of hearing a sonic boom during the warm and muggy months of summer, compared to the drier and cooler days of winter.

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