Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Shock Waves in Space
Name: Lois
Status: educator
Grade: 6-8
Location: TN
Country: N/A
Date: 2/14/2005

One of my students asked a great question we would all like the answer to. They understand there would be no sound in space, but would shock waves from an explosion in space be felt either on Earth or especially if astronauts were on a mission in space?

It is a perceptive question. Acoustic waves (sound) are produced when the atoms/molecules are displaced from their equilibrium rest position by a cyclic oscillating force. The restoring force for small displacements is given by Hooke's Law (the displacement of the atoms/molecules is proportional to the applied force). The acoustic wave can be a shear wave in which the displacement is perpendicular (up and down) to the direction of propagation of the wave. It can be longitudinal (compression) in which the displacement is in the direction of the direction of propagation (back and forth). Or the wave may be torsional, that is, the material twists back and forth around the direction of propagation. Mathematically, a torsional wave can be "decomposed" into a combination of compressional and shear components.

Now even in the vacuum of space both material particles and light can be generated by a cyclic process. This produces wave-like behavior in that the motion of the particles and/or light is periodic. But since there is no "restoring" force this type of periodic motion is not considered to be acoustical. Analogously, a machine gun sends out a periodic stream of projectiles, but one does not categorize the stream of bullets as an acoustic wave because THERE IS NO RESTORING FORCE. The key characteristic of an acoustic wave is a restoring force operating.

Vince Calder

You cannot have a shock wave in empty space, but it is possible for the effects of an explosion to be felt away from the source. Let us just look at what actually occurs and see what effects are possible.

For purposes here, an explosion is a rapidly expanding cloud of gas, mixed with debris from whatever structure used to contain the gas. In an atmosphere, if the gas and debris are moving faster than the speed of sound, they will produce a shock wave, and this will transfer energy from the gas and debris to the surrounding air, slowing the gas and debris down and limiting the distance they will travel. In space, with no air to absorb the energy of the explosion, the gas and debris will just continue to travel at constant speed until they hit something.

When the gas and debris collide with an atmosphere, they could produce a shock wave, but only if they arrive in sufficient concentration to force the air molecules they hit to move together. If the explosion occurred very far away, the gas molecules would be very spread out by the time they hit the atmosphere, and they would behave more as a bunch of separate, rapidly moving particles than as a gas. The air molecules they hit would not be forced to move as a unit in the direction the gas was moving; air molecules would be allowed to move aside as well, and no shock wave would result.

Any astronauts in the vicinity would get hit by some fraction of the gas/debris, and would absorb essentially all of that fraction's energy. If they were close, they would absorb a significant fraction of the total energy of the explosion. If they were far away, they would absorb only a small fraction. (If you divide the area of the astronaut's silhouette by the area of a sphere whose radius is the distance from the explosion to the astronaut, you will have the fraction of the explosion's energy absorbed by the astronaut.)

Tim Mooney

The "vacuum" of space is a slight exaggeration. It is not completely devoid of any atoms, but the molecules that are present are spread so widely as to be easily enough ignored. The difficulty in establishing any kind of wave pattern means that neither sound nor explosions could be felt or heard.

Now since most explosions as we know them on Earth involve relatively small amounts of solids or liquids (on occasion gasses, such as fumes from fuel) becoming very hot gas very quickly, Then I suppose their shock wave could be felt at a small distance in space. Actually, all you would likely feel is the rapidly expanding gas of the explosion itself.

Ryan Belscamper

Lois -

As we think of a shock wave on earth, no. We usually feel the intense compression wave from an explosion. It is a sound wave that is strong enough that not only does our ear drum sense it, but we can feel it with our skin. In space there is nothing - no matter - to compress so a traditional "shock wave" would not travel.

Yet, there are things that could be created by an explosion that travel in space. Light does not require matter to travel and, although the force is usually much smaller - light can transmit force. Your class might find it interesting to explore the idea of a solar sail. The solar wind can be seen in the effect on the tail of a comet. Someday we might "sail" through space in the same way that Columbus "sailed the ocean blue" but using light instead of air to fill the sail. More information can be found at


Explosions in space (such as explosions on the surface of the sun) also send out particles that could be considered a shock wave. Although our earth-orbiting satellites sometimes suffer from these explosions, we on the earth are largely protected by our magnetic field.

NASA launched an experiment investigating the exposure to space that your class might find interesting. it was called LDEF - Long Duration Exposure Facility. You can read more at

Larry Krengel

There is no air or water to carry waves, so some explosions send out much light and little shock. Quiet flashes, almost. But gasses and vaporized solids thrown out by the explosion do carry impulse, and there is no air to slow them down, so they coast outwards a long ways, getting thinner and weaker as they go. If astronauts were close enough or the explosion heavy enough, yes, it could hit hard. Down on Earth, we would not feel the blast unless the explosion was so big that it affected a large fraction of the depth of the atmosphere.

Suppose a lump of material in space gradually got hotter and hotter until it finally vaporized very fast. By gradual I might mean 1 second, or 0.01 second. The gasses leaving the lump first would be barely hot enough to evaporate, so they would be slow. The gasses leaving last would be hottest, so their molecules would be moving faster through space. The faster ones might catch up with the slower ones and, if still dense enough, make a clumped-up sheet of expanding gas, which would hit surrounding objects in a shorter time than the gradual explosion took from start to finish. This kind of impulse-compression is one of the core concepts of a "shock wave", in air or wherever.

On the other hand, if the slow explosion was too small or too slowly heated, the "catching up" would not occur until so far away from the explosion that the gasses were so spread-out that they would pass through each other transparently. Then the explosion might merely feel like a breath of hot wind.

There are a few other things to be said about explosions in space, too. There is no speed-of-sound to help estimate the speed of the shock wave. Hot, thin explosions can send out shock waves that travel considerably faster than sound in air. If the explosion emits light or X-rays onto a solid object, and if they are intense enough to make a bit of the surface evaporate abruptly (have to be pretty close), then the vapor instantly expanding away from the object will push on the object, applying some "blast".

In a way, the vacuum of space allows more different styles for an explosion than the atmosphere.

I am curious what source of explosion source your students were imagining...

Jim Swenson

Sound, of course, requires matter to be transmitted and thus does not propagate in space.

However, an explosion implies the presence of matter. Typically it would be accompanied by generation of large quantities of gases (even if the explosion occurs in space). This matter (gas and particles of solids) would expand rapidly outward, striking any space capsules. I would expect that would be heard by the occupants of the space capsule.

Greg Bradburn

Click here to return to the Physics Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory