Shock Diamonds

Rocket engine exhaust often contains a distinctive pattern known as shock diamonds or Mach diamonds. These are a series of shock waves and expansion fans that increase and decrease, respectively, the supersonic exhaust gases’ pressure until it equalizes with atmospheric pressure. The bright glowing spots visible to the naked eye are caused by excess fuel in the exhaust igniting. As awesome as shock diamonds look, they’re actually an indication of inefficiencies in the rocket: first, because the exhaust is over- or underexpanded, and second, because combustion inside the engine is incomplete. Both factors reduce a rocket engine’s efficiency (and both are, to some extent, inescapable). (Photo credit: XCOR)

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