The term supersonic is used to define a speed that is over the speed of sound (Mach 1). At a typical temperature like 21 °C (70 °F), the threshold value required for an object to be traveling at a supersonic speed is approximately 344 m/s, (1,129 ft/s, 761 mph or 1,238 km/h). Speeds greater than 5 times the speed of sound are often referred to as hypersonic. Speeds where only some parts of the air around an object (such as the ends of rotor blades) reach supersonic speeds are labeled transonic (typically somewhere between Mach 0.8 and Mach 1.2).
Sounds are travelling vibrations (pressure waves) in an elastic medium. In gases sound travels longitudinally at different speeds, mostly depending on the molecular mass and temperature of the gas; (pressure has little effect). Since air temperature and composition varies significantly with altitude, Mach numbers for aircraft can change without airspeed varying. In water at room temperature supersonic can be considered as any speed greater than 1,440 m/s (4,724 ft/s). In solids, sound waves can be longitudinal or transverse and have even higher velocities. Supersonic fracture is crack motion faster than the speed of sound in a brittle material.
Most modern fighter aircraft are supersonic, but Concorde and the Tupolev Tu-144 were the only supersonic passenger aircraft. An aircraft that can still sustain supersonic flight without using an afterburner is called a supercruise aircraft. Due to its ability to supercruise for several hours and the relatively high frequency of flight over several decades, Concorde spent more time flying supersonically than all other aircraft put together by a considerable margin. Since Concorde's final retirement flight on November 26, 2003, there are no supersonic passenger aircraft left in service. Some large bombers, such as the Tupolev Tu-160 and Rockwell/Boeing B-1B are also supersonic-capable.
Most spacecraft, most notably the Space Shuttle are supersonic at least during portions of their reentry, though the effects on the spacecraft are reduced by low air pressures. During ascent, launch vehicles generally avoid going supersonic below 30 km (~98,400 feet) to reduce air drag.
Note that the speed of sound decreases somewhat with altitude, due to lower temperatures found there (typically up to 25 km). At even higher altitudes the temperature starts increasing, with the corresponding increase in the speed of sound.
Breaking the sound barrier
In aerodynamics, the sound barrier usually refers to the point at which an aircraft moves from transonic to supersonic speed. The term came into use during World War II when a number of aircraft started to encounter the effects of compressibility, a grab-bag of unrelated aerodynamic effects. The term fell out of use in the 1950s when aircraft started to routinely "break" the sound barrier. Refer to the speed of sound for the science behind the velocity referred to as the sound barrier, and to sonic boom for information on the sound associated with supersonic flight. Captain Charles E. Yeager was the first man to reach supersonic speed in controlled level flight.
Supersonic aerodynamics are simpler than subsonic because the airsheets at different points along the plane often can't affect each other. Supersonic jets and rocket vehicles require several times greater thrust to push through the extra drag experienced within the transonic region (around Mach 0.85-1.2). At these speeds Aerospace engineers can gently guide air around the fuselage of the aircraft without producing new shock waves but any change in cross sectional area further down the vehicle leads to shock waves along the body. Designers use the Supersonic area rule and the Whitcomb area rule to minimize sudden changes in size.
It should be kept in mind, however, that the aerodynamic principles behind a supersonic aircraft are often more complex than described above because such an aircraft must be efficient and stable at supersonic, transonic and subsonic flight.
One problem with sustained supersonic flight is the generation of heat in flight. At high speeds aerodynamic heating can occur, so an aircraft must be designed to operate and function under very high temperatures. Duralumin, the traditional aircraft material, starts to lose strength and go plastic at relatively low temperatures, and is unsuitable for continuous use at speeds above Mach 2.2 to 2.4. Materials such as titanium and stainless steel allow operations at much higher temperatures. For example, the SR-71 Blackbird jet could fly continuously at Mach 3.1 while some parts were above 315°C (600°F).
Another area of concern for continued high-speed operation is the engines. Jet engines create thrust by increasing the temperature of the air they ingest, and as the aircraft speeds up, friction and compression heats this air before it reaches the engines. The maximum temperature of the exhaust is determined by the materials in the turbine at the rear of the engine, so as the aircraft speeds up the difference in intake and exhaust temperature the engine can extract decreases, and the thrust along with it. Air cooling the turbine area to allow operations at higher temperatures was a key solution, one that continued to improve though the 1950s and on to this day.
Intake design was also a major issue. Normal jet engines can only ingest subsonic air, so for supersonic operation the air has to be slowed down. Ramps or cones in the intake are used to create shock waves that slows the airflow before it reaches the engine. Doing so removes energy from the airflow, causing drag. The key to reducing this drag is to use multiple small oblique shock waves, but this was difficult because the angle they make inside the intake changes with Mach number. In order to efficiently operate across a range of speeds, the shock waves have to be "tuned."
An aircraft able to operate for extended periods at supersonic speeds has a potential range advantage over a similar design operating subsonically. Most of the drag an aircraft sees while speeding up to supersonic speeds occurs just below the speed of sound, due to an aerodynamic effect known as wave drag. An aircraft that can accelerate past this speed sees a significant drag decrease, and can fly supersonically with improved fuel economy. However, due to the way lift is generated supersonically, the lift-to-drag ratio of the aircraft as a whole drops, leading to lower range, offsetting or overturning this advantage.
The key to having low supersonic drag is to properly shape the overall aircraft to be long and skinny, as close as possible to a "perfect" shape, the von Karman ogive or Sears-Haack body. This has led to almost every supersonic cruising aircraft looking very similar to every other, with a very long and skinny fuselage and large delta wings, cf. SR-71, Concorde, etc. Although not ideal for passenger aircraft, this shaping is quite adaptable for bomber use.
The Hungarian-American scientist Theodore Kármán was the inventor of the mathematical tools to study fluid flow, the mathematical background of supersonic flight, and the swept-back wing. He is often called as "the father of Supersonic Flight" stability of laminar flow, turbulence, airfoils in steady and unsteady flow, boundary layers, and supersonic aerodynamics. He made additional contributions in other fields, including elasticity, vibration, heat transfer, and crystallography. His name appears in at least the following concepts: Foppl-von Kármán equations (large deflection of elastic plates) Born-von Kármán lattice model (crystallography) Chaplygin-Kármán-Tsien approximation (potential flow) Falkowich-Kármán equation (transonic flow) von Kármán constant (wall turbulence) Kármán line (aerodynamics/astronautics) Kármán-Howarth equation (turbulence) Kármán-Nikuradse correlation (viscous flow; coauthored by Johann Nikuradse) Kármán-Pohlhausen parameter (boundary layers) Kármán-Treffz transformation (airfoil theory) Prandtl-von Kármán law (velocity in open channel flow) von Kármán integral equation (boundary layers) von Kármán ogive (supersonic aerodynamics) von Kármán vortex street (flow past cylinder) von Kármán-Tsien compressibility correction
Other flow regimes
Published - July 2009
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