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Mach number equals object speed divided by speed of sound. Pictures
 of aircraft at subsonic, supersonic and hypersonic Mach numbers

As an aircraft moves through the air, the air molecules near the aircraft are disturbed and move around the aircraft. If the aircraft passes at a low speed, typically less than 250 mph, the density of the air remains constant. But for higher speeds, some of the energy of the aircraft goes into compressing the air and locally changing the density of the air. This compressibility effect alters the amount of resulting force on the aircraft. The effect becomes more important as speed increases. Near and beyond the speed of sound, about 330 m/s or 760 mph at sea level, small disturbances in the flow are transmitted to other locations isentropically or with constant entropy. Sharp disturbances generate shock waves that affect both the lift and drag of the aircraft, and the flow conditions downstream of the shock wave.

The ratio of the speed of the aircraft to the speed of sound in the gas determines the magnitude of many of the compressibility effects. Because of the importance of this speed ratio, aerodynamicists have designated it with a special parameter called the Mach number in honor of Ernst Mach, a late 19th century physicist who studied gas dynamics. The Mach number M allows us to define flight regimes in which compressibility effects vary.

  1. Subsonic conditions occur for Mach numbers less than one, M < 1 . For the lowest subsonic conditions, compressibility can be ignored.
  2. As the speed of the object approaches the speed of sound, the flight Mach number is nearly equal to one, M = 1, and the flow is said to be transonic. At some places on the object, the local speed exceeds the speed of sound. Compressibility effects are most important in transonic flows and lead to the early belief in a sound barrier. Flight faster than sound was thought to be impossible. In fact, the sound barrier was only an increase in the drag near sonic conditions because of compressibility effects. Because of the high drag associated with compressibility effects, aircraft do not cruise near Mach 1.
  3. Supersonic conditions occur for Mach numbers greater than one, 1 < M < 3. Compressibility effects are important for supersonic aircraft, and shock waves are generated by the surface of the object. For high supersonic speeds, 3 < M < 5, aerodynamic heating also becomes very important for aircraft design.
  4. For speeds greater than five times the speed of sound, M > 5, the flow is said to be hypersonic. At these speeds, some of the energy of the object now goes into exciting the chemical bonds which hold together the nitrogen and oxygen molecules of the air. At hypersonic speeds, the chemistry of the air must be considered when determining forces on the object. The Space Shuttle re-enters the atmosphere at high hypersonic speeds, M ~ 25. Under these conditions, the heated air becomes an ionized plasma of gas and the spacecraft must be insulated from the high temperatures.
For supersonic and hypersonic flows, small disturbances are transmitted downstream within a cone. The trigonometric sine of the cone angle b is equal to the inverse of the Mach number M and the angle is therefore called the Mach angle.

sin(b) = 1 / M

There is no upstream influence in a supersonic or hypersonic flow; disturbances are only transmitted downstream.

The Mach number depends on the speed of sound in the gas and the speed of sound depends on the type of gas and the temperature of the gas. The speed of sound varies from planet to planet. On Earth, the atmosphere is composed of mostly diatomic nitrogen and oxygen, and the temperature depends on the altitude in a rather complex way. Scientists and engineers have created a mathematical model of the atmosphere to help them account for the changing effects of temperature with altitude. We have created an atmospheric calculator to let you study the variation of sound speed with planet and altitude.

Here's a Java program to calculate speed of sound and Mach number for different altitudes and speed. You can use this calculator to determine the Mach number of a aircraft at a given speed and altitude.

To change input values, click on the input box (black on white), backspace over the input value, type in your new value. Then hit the red COMPUTE button to send your new value to the program. You will see the output boxes (yellow on black) change value. You can use either Imperial or Metric units and you can input either the Mach number or the speed by using the menu buttons. Just click on the menu button and click on your selection. If you are an experienced user of this calculator, you can use a sleek version of the program which loads faster on your computer and does not include these instructions. You can also download your own copy of the program to run off-line by clicking on this button:

Button to Download a Copy of the Program


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Editor: Tom Benson
NASA Official: Tom Benson
Last Updated: Jun 12 2014

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