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Supersonic is a speed that exceeds the speed of sound on Earth. This term normally used to describe this is Mach. So if a craft is said to be traveling at Mach 2, it’s flying at speeds two times the speed of sound. So what makes supersonic speed possible? It took a combination of new knowledge about airflow and advances in the design of airplane structures and evidence. Supersonic flight is now so commonplace that we experience some of its benefits in the commercial airplanes we fly and the advanced nature of our Air Force aircraft and most importantly the craft we use in spaceflight.
Now we will investigate the mechanics of what makes supersonic flight possible. First there is the engine. Without some kind of propulsion, it’s impossible for an aircraft to reach supersonic speeds. The major development of the jet engine was the first step to creating supersonic aircraft. Surprisingly the concept of a jet engine has been around since before 1 AD with the early experiments of Hero of Alexandria; however, its applications wasn’t realized until the beginning of the 19th century. It wasn’t considered a commercially viable concept until the 1940s with the design of the axial flow jet engine. From there on, the rest is history.
Jet engines solved the main problem that faced traditional propeller aircraft. It was a more efficient type of engine that could achieve speeds approaching and exceeding the speed of sound. This was done by directing air using fans and the forward motion of the engine after take off to force air through an intake. Afterward, the air is mixed in a combustion chamber with fuel injected in. The mixture is combusted creating a heated exhaust that creates thrust.
The next hurdle was the design of the aircraft. A plane with a jet engine had the potential to reach supersonic speeds but would not have the structural integrity to endure those high speeds. Many of these problems had simple solutions such as using stronger materials. The other solution was to design these structures with a greater understanding of airflow at supersonic speeds. Theodore Karman was the first scientist to come up with the mathematical expressions that described airflow under these conditions. He became known as the “Father of Supersonic Flight.” With these tools supersonic flight became a practical reality.
As we have seen, the concept of supersonic flight was the culmination of many great minds over centuries thinking about the possibilities of jet engines and the dynamics of air flow and lift. Thanks to their work we can enjoy the modern advances supersonic flight provides.
If you enjoyed this article there are others on Universe Today you might like to check out. There is a great article on a type of supersonic aircraft called a scramjet. There is also another interesting article about NASA’s plans to build a supersonic airplane.
You can also find other interesting related material on the web. Here is a NASA website with a test pilot’s recollection of the early development of supersonic flight. Here is another NASA site that has more detailed information about supersonic flight.
You can also listen to Astronomy Cast. Episode 127 the Space Shuttle i