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Shock wave

NASA photograph of plane in flight showing shock waves

As an airplane flies faster than the speed of sound, it "pushes" on the sound waves in front of it. But sound waves obey the speed limit—they can't travel faster than the speed of sound. So the waves pile up against each other as they are created. These "piled up" waves are called shock waves. The greatest shock waves are at the tip and tail of the plane. This NASA photograph shows the shock waves created by a plane in flight (The "rings" in the photograph are camera artifacts and are not part of the shock waves; for more information see NASA: Schlieren Photography - Ground to Air)

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Photo: NASA

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