If you’ve ever watched a rocket launch, you’ve probably noticed the billowing clouds around the launch pad during lift-off. What you’re seeing is not actually the rocket’s exhaust but the result of a launch pad and vehicle protection system known in NASA parlance as the Sound Suppression Water System. Exhaust gases from a rocket typically exit at a pressure higher than the ambient atmosphere, which generates shock waves and lots of turbulent mixing between the exhaust and the air. Put differently, launch ignition is incredibly loud, loud enough to cause structural damage to the launchpad and, via reflection, the vehicle and its contents.
To mitigate this problem, launch operators use a massive water injection system that pours about 3.5 times as much water as rocket propellant per second. This significantly reduces the noise levels on the launchpad and vehicle and also helps protect the infrastructure from heat damage. The exact physical processes involved – details of the interaction of acoustic noise and turbulence with water droplets – are still murky because this problem is incredibly difficult to study experimentally or in simulation. But, at these high water flow rates, there’s enough water to significantly affect the temperature and size of the rocket’s jet exhaust. Effectively, energy that would have gone into gas motion and acoustic vibration is instead expended on moving and heating water droplets. In the case of the Space Shuttle, this reduced noise levels in the payload bay to 142 dB – about as loud as standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier. (Image credits: NASA, 1, 2; research credit: M. Kandula; original question from Megan H.)