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Computer Drawing of sound waves moving out from a bell.
 Speed depends on the square root of the temperature.

Air is a gas, and a very important property of any gas is the speed of sound through the gas. Why are we interested in the speed of sound? The speed of "sound" is actually the speed of transmission of a small disturbance through a medium. Sound itself is a sensation created in the human brain in response to sensory inputs from the inner ear. (We won't comment on the old "tree falling in a forest" discussion!)

Disturbances are transmitted through a gas as a result of collisions between the randomly moving molecules in the gas. The transmission of a small disturbance through a gas is an isentropic process. The conditions in the gas are the same before and after the disturbance passes through. Because the speed of transmission depends on molecular collisions, the speed of sound depends on the state of the gas. The speed of sound is a constant within a given gas and the value of the constant depends on the type of gas (air, pure oxygen, carbon dioxide, etc.) and the temperature of the gas. An analysis based on conservation of mass and momentum shows that the speed of sound a is equal to the square root of the ratio of specific heats g times the gas constant R times the temperature T.

a = sqrt [g * R * T]

Notice that the temperature must be specified on an absolute scale (Kelvin or Rankine). The dependence on the type of gas is included in the gas constant R. which equals the universal gas constant divided by the molecular weight of the gas, and the ratio of specific heats.

The speed of sound in air depends on the type of gas and the temperature of the gas. 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. Mars also has an atmosphere composed of mostly carbon dioxide. There is a similar mathematical model of the Martian atmosphere. We have created an atmospheric calculator to let you study the variation of sound speed with planet and altitude.

Here's another Java program to calculate speed of sound and Mach number for different planets, altitudes, and speed. You can use this calculator to determine the Mach number of a rocket at a given speed and altitude on Earth or Mars.

Due to IT security concerns, many users are currently experiencing problems running NASA Glenn educational applets. There are security settings that you can adjust that may correct this problem.

To change input values, click on the input box (black on white), backspace over the input value, type in your new value, and hit the Enter key on the keyboard (this sends your new value to the program). You will see the output boxes (yellow on black) change value. You can use either English 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. There is a sleek version of this program for experienced users who do not need these instructions.

You can also download your own copy of this program to run off-line by clicking on this button:

Button to Download a Copy of the Program

Guided Tours
  • Button to Display Previous Page Speed of Sound: Button to Display Next Page
  • Button to Display Previous Page Compressible Aerodynamics: Button to Display Next Page
  • Button to Display Previous Page Atmosphere Simulator: Button to Display Next Page
  • Button to Display Previous Page Mach & Speed of Sound Calculator: Button to Display Next Page


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

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