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I have always wondered why the sound that large rockets make during liftoff is not constant and occasionally sounds as if it's "popping"? Which seems to resemble the phenomenon of "rolling" thunder.

This video for example (Caution, the link starts video at mid launch - so is Very Loud!)

I cannot see much of a visible indication that the rocket's exhaust is fluctuating. I would "expect" to hear a consistent rumble.

I kind of suspect the inconsistency of the sound is caused by interference of the multiple exhausts jets blowing against each other?

Or possibly that the solid rocket fuel burns at a rapidly varying rate?

I cant imagine that the combustion rate of the liquid stage would vary by much, and definitely not produce intermittent explosions.

Any thoughts?

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    $\begingroup$ How about that the velocity of the gases is higher the speed of sound in air? $\endgroup$ – HolgerFiedler Sep 10 '16 at 5:13
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    $\begingroup$ quora.com/Why-do-military-jets-and-rockets-crackle/answer/… $\endgroup$ – user108787 Sep 10 '16 at 5:18
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    $\begingroup$ There will be enormous turbulence in the exhaust, and I suspect the exhaust must initially be supersonic as @HolgerFiedler mentions. The result of that is going to be a lot of chaotic (in the dynamical chaos sense) sound, some of which is shockwaves: lots of bangs and pops. $\endgroup$ – tfb Sep 10 '16 at 9:52
  • $\begingroup$ So the phenomenon's origin is purly extra-vehicular and involves the interaction of supersonic jets of gas which upon expansion into the atmosphere create turbulent constructive and destructive soundwave interference which propagate to the ground as shockwaves? $\endgroup$ – Logic1 Sep 10 '16 at 11:00
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Caution, the link starts video at mid launch - so is Very Loud!

First things first: The sound in any recorded video does not match the sound of being there. The launch of a Space Shuttle was so loud you could feel the sound. It however was not as loud as the launch of a Saturn V.

I cannot see much of a visible indication that the rocket's exhaust is fluctuating.

There are some visible indications of fluctuations in the exhaust in the linked video. There are obvious signs of turbulence in the underexpanded smoky exhaust from the Shuttle's solid rocket boosters (SRBs). Look closely at the video and you will see that the exhaust does not form a nice, even cone. That it forms a cone at all is a sign the the SRBs were underexpanded.

What isn't clear in the video is the nature of the exhaust from the Space Shuttle's main engine (SSME). As opposed to the overexpanded SRBs, the main engine was overexpanded at launch. This resulted in the formation of Mach diamonds. These Mach diamonds are clearly visible in the images below.

Image of the Space Shuttle shortly after launch that clearly depicts Mach diamonds in the exhaust from the main engine.

Another image of the Shuttle shortly after launch that once again depicts Mach diamonds in the exhaust from the main engine.


Those Mach diamonds alone were responsible for some of the uneven sound that resulted from a Shuttle launch. Another source of that noise was due to the nature of the SRBs. Unlike the fluid-fueled engines, the SRBs (as their name implies) were solid fuel engines. In engineering, nothing is ever perfect. Slight imperfections in the construction of the SRBs inevitable would have led to an uneven sound. Interactions between the supersonic underexpanded exhaust from the SRBs and the supersonic overexpanded exhaust from the SSME provided yet another source of that varying sound. One last source is that the noise was so loud near the rocket that the sound exceeded 194 dB, the loudest possible undistorted sound in air. The clipping in a turbulent atmosphere would have been extreme and uneven.

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  • $\begingroup$ Very interesting! I'm now curious if it is the SSME's high velocity output that contributes more to the production of shockwaves at the ground? I found a neat video about under-expanded supersonic jets and sound wave production: youtube.com/watch?v=dJp5m1SDN5c $\endgroup$ – Logic1 Sep 16 '16 at 23:36

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