Blast Waves Visualized

Typically, shock waves are invisible to the human eye. Using sensitive optical techniques like schlieren photography, researchers in a lab can visualize sharp density gradients like shock waves or even the slight density variations caused by natural convection. But it takes some special conditions to make shock waves visible to the naked eye. The blast wave of the explosion in the photo above is a great example. The leading edge of the shock wave and the heat of the explosion create a strong, sharp change in density. That density change is accompanied by a change in the air’s refractive index. As light travels from the distance toward the camera, it’s distorted–more specifically, refracted–when it travels through the blast wave and its wake. And, in this case, that visual distortion is strong enough that we can clearly see the outlines of the shock waves moving out from the explosion. The apparent horizontal line through the blast wave is probably the intersection of a weaker secondary shock wave with the initial expanding shock wave. (Image credit: Defense Research and Development Canada; via io9)

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