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A shock wave is a type of propagating disturbance. Like an ordinary wave, it carries energy and can propagate through a medium (solid, liquid, gas or plasma) or in some cases in the absence of a material medium, through a field such as the electromagnetic field. Shock waves are characterized by an abrupt, nearly discontinuous change in the characteristics of the medium. Across a shock there is always an extremely rapid rise in pressure, temperature and density of the flow. In supersonic flows, expansion is achieved through an expansion fan. A shock wave travels through most media at a higher speed than an ordinary wave.
Unlike solitons (another kind of nonlinear wave), the energy of a shock wave dissipates relatively quickly with distance. Also, the accompanying expansion wave approaches and eventually merges with the shock wave, partially cancelling it out. Thus the sonic boom associated with the passage of a supersonic aircraft is the sound wave resulting from the degradation and merging of the shock wave and the expansion wave produced by the aircraft.
When a shock wave passes through matter, the total energy is preserved but the energy which can be extracted as work decreases and the entropy increases. This, for example, creates additional drag force on aircraft with shocks.
Shock waves can be:
Some other terms
The abruptness of change in the features of the medium, that characterize shock waves, can be viewed as a phase transition: the pressure-time diagram of a supersonic object propagating shows how the transition induced by a shock wave is analogous to a dynamic phase transition.
When an object (or disturbance) moves faster than the information about it can be propagated into the surrounding fluid, fluid near the disturbance cannot react or "get out of the way" before the disturbance arrives. In a shock wave the properties of the fluid (density, pressure, temperature, velocity, Mach number) change almost instantaneously. Measurements of the thickness of shock waves in air have resulted in values around 200 nm (about 10−5 in), which is on the same order of magnitude as the mean free gas molecule path. In reference to the continuum, this implies the shock wave can be treated as either a line or a plane if the flow field is two-dimensional or three-dimensional, respectively.
Shock waves form when the speed of a fluid changes by more than the speed of sound. At the region where this occurs sound waves travelling against the flow reach a point where they cannot travel any further upstream and the pressure progressively builds in that region, and a high pressure shock wave rapidly forms.
Shock waves are not conventional sound waves; a shock wave takes the form of a very sharp change in the gas properties on the order of a few mean free paths (roughly micrometers at atmospheric conditions) in thickness. Shock waves in air are heard as a loud "crack" or "snap" noise. Over longer distances a shock wave can change from a nonlinear wave into a linear wave, degenerating into a conventional sound wave as it heats the air and loses energy. The sound wave is heard as the familiar "thud" or "thump" of a sonic boom, commonly created by the supersonic flight of aircraft.
The shock wave is one of several different ways in which a gas in a supersonic flow can be compressed. Some other methods are isentropic compressions, including Prandtl-Meyer compressions. The method of compression of a gas results in different temperatures and densities for a given pressure ratio, which can be analytically calculated for a non-reacting gas. A shock wave compression results in a loss of total pressure, meaning that it is a less efficient method of compressing gases for some purposes, for instance in the intake of a scramjet. The appearance of pressure-drag on supersonic aircraft is mostly due to the effect of shock compression on the flow.
In elementary fluid mechanics utilizing ideal gasses, a shock wave is treated as a discontinuity where entropy increases over a nearly infinitesimal region. Since no fluid flow is discontinuous, a control volume is established around the shock wave, with the control surfaces that bound this volume parallel to the shock wave (with one surface on the pre-shock side of the fluid medium and one on the post-shock side). The two surfaces are separated by a very small depth such that the shock itself is entirely contained between them. At such control surfaces, momentum, mass flux, and energy are constant; within combustion detonations can be modeled as heat introduction across a shock wave. It is assumed the system is adiabatic (no heat exits or enters the system) and no work is being done. The Rankine–Hugoniot conditions arise from these considerations.
Taking into account the established assumptions, in a system where the downstream properties are becoming subsonic: the upstream and downstream flow properties of the fluid are considered isentropic. Since the total amount of energy within the system is constant, the stagnation enthalpy remains constant over both regions. Though, entropy is increasing this must be accounted for by a drop in stagnation pressure of the downstream fluid.
When analyzing shock waves in a flow field, which are still attached to the body, the shock wave which is deviating at some arbitrary angle from the flow direction is termed oblique shock. These shocks require a component vector analysis of the flow; doing so allows for the treatment of the flow in an orthogonal direction to the oblique shock as a normal shock.
When an oblique shock is likely to form at an angle which can not remain on the surface, a nonlinear phenomenon arises where the shock wave will form a continuous pattern around the body. These are termed bow shocks. In these cases, the 1d flow model is not valid and a complex analysis is needed to predict the pressure forces which are exerted on the surface.
Shock waves can form due to steepening of ordinary waves. The best-known example of this phenomenon is ocean waves that form breakers on the shore. In shallow water, the speed of surface waves is dependent on the depth of the water. An incoming ocean wave has a slightly higher wave speed near the crest of each wave than near the troughs between waves, because the wave height is not infinitesimal compared to the depth of the water. The crests overtake the troughs until the leading edge of the wave forms a vertical face and spills over to form a turbulent shock (a breaker) that dissipates the wave's energy as sound and heat.
Similar phenomena affect strong sound waves in gas or plasma, due to the dependence of the sound speed on temperature and pressure. Strong waves heat the medium near each pressure front, due to adiabatic compression of the air itself, so that high pressure fronts outrun the corresponding pressure troughs. While shock formation by this process does not normally happen to sound waves in Earth's atmosphere, it is thought to be one mechanism by which the solar chromosphere and corona are heated, via waves that propagate up from the solar interior.
A shock wave may be described as the furthest point upstream of a moving object which "knows" about the approach of the object. In this description, the shock wave position is defined as the boundary between the zone having no information about the shock-driving event, and the zone aware of the shock-driving event, analogous with the light cone described in the theory of special relativity.
To produce a shock wave, an object in a given medium (such as air, or water) must travel faster than the local speed of sound. In the case of an aircraft travelling at high subsonic speed, regions of air around the aircraft may be travelling at exactly the speed of sound, so that the sound waves leaving the aircraft pile up on one another, similar to a traffic jam on a freeway. When a shock wave forms, the local air pressure increases, and then spreads out sideways. Because of this amplification effect, a shock wave can be very intense, more like an explosion when heard at a distance (not coincidentally, since explosions create shock waves).
Analogous phenomena are known outside fluid mechanics. For example, particles accelerated beyond the speed of light in a refractive medium (where the speed of light is less than that in a vacuum, such as water) create visible shock effects, a phenomenon known as Cherenkov radiation.
Below are a number of examples of shock waves, broadly grouped with similar shock phenomena:
Shock waves can also occur in rapid flows of dense granular materials down inclined channels or slopes. Strong shocks in rapid dense granular flows can be studied theoretically and analyzed to compare with experimental data. Consider a configuration in which the rapidly moving material down the chute impinges on an obstruction wall erected perpendicular at the end of a long and steep channel. Impact leads to a sudden change in the flow regime from a fast moving supercritical thin layer to a stagnant thick heap. This flow configuration is particularly interesting because it is analogous to some hydraulic and aerodynamic situations associated with flow regime changes from supercritical to subcritical flows.
Astrophysical environments feature many different types of shock waves. Some common examples are supernovae shock waves or blast waves travelling through the interstellar medium, the bow shock caused by the Earth's magnetic field colliding with the solar wind and shock waves caused by galaxies colliding with each other. Another interesting type of shock in astrophysics is the quasi-steady reverse shock or termination shock that terminates the ultra relativistic wind from young pulsars.
When the 2013 meteor entered into the Earth’s atmosphere with an energy release equivalent to 100 or more kilotons of TNT, dozens of times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, the meteor's shock wave produced damages as in a supersonic jet's flyby (directly underneath the meteor's path) and as a detonation wave, with the circular shock wave centred at the meteor explosion, causing multiple instances of broken glass in the city of Chelyabinsk and neighbouring areas (pictured).
The wave disk engine (also named "Radial Internal Combustion Wave Rotor") is a kind of pistonless rotary engine that utilizes shock waves to transfer energy between a high-energy fluid to a low-energy fluid, thereby increasing both temperature and pressure of the low-energy fluid.