Air is a gas, and a very important
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
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
based on conservation of
shows that the speed of sound a is equal to the square root of the
specific heatsg times the gas constant R times the
a = sqrt [g * R * T]
Notice that the
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
to let you study the variation of sound speed with planet and
Here's another Java program to calculate speed of sound and
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
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
selection. There is a
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: