Aerodynamic heating

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Aerodynamic heating is the heating of a solid body produced by its high-speed passage through air (or by the passage of air past a test object in a wind tunnel), whereby its kinetic energy is converted to heat by skin friction on the surface of the object at a rate that depends on the viscosity and speed of the air. In science and engineering, it is most frequently a concern regarding meteors, reentry vehicles, and the design of high-speed aircraft.

At high speeds through the air, the object's kinetic energy is converted to heat through compression and friction. At lower speed, the object will lose heat to the air through which it is passing, if the air is cooler. The combined temperature effect of heat from the air and from passage through it is called the stagnation temperature; the actual temperature is called the recovery temperature.[1] These viscous dissipative effects to neighboring sub-layers make the boundary layer slow down via a non-isentropic process. Heat then conducts into the surface material from the higher temperature air. The result is an increase in the temperature of the material and a loss of energy from the flow. The forced convection ensures that other material replenishes the gases that have cooled to continue the process.

The stagnation and the recovery temperature of a flow increases with the speed of the flow and are greater at high speeds. The total thermal loading of the object is a function of both the recovery temperature and the mass flow rate of the flow. Aerodynamic heating is greatest at high speed and in the lower atmosphere where the density is greater. In addition to the convective process described above, there is also Thermal radiation from the flow to the body and vice versa with the net direction set by the relative temperature of each.

Aerodynamic heating increases with the speed of the vehicle. Its effects are minimal at subsonic speeds but at supersonic speeds beyond about M2.2 it dictates the design/materials of the vehicle structure and internal systems. The heating effects are greatest at leading edges but the whole vehicle heats up to a stabilized temperature if it remains at speed. Aerodynamic heating is dealt with by the use of high temperature alloys for metals, the addition of insulation of the exterior of the vehicle, or the use of ablative material.


Aerodynamic heating is a concern for supersonic and hypersonic aircraft. The SR-71 used titanium skin panels painted black to reduce the temperature[2] and corrugated to accommodate expansion.[3] Some designs for hypersonic missiles have used liquid cooling of the leading edges (usually the fuel en route to the engine). The Sprint missile's heat shield needed several design iterations for Mach 10 temperatures.[4]

Reentry vehicles[edit]

Heating caused by the very high reentry speeds (greater than Mach 20) is sufficient to destroy the vehicle unless special techniques are used. The early space capsules such as used on Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo were given blunt shapes to produce a stand-off bow shock. As a result most of the heat is dissipated to surrounding air without transferring through the vehicle structure. Additionally, these vehicles had ablative material that sublimates into a gas at high temperature. The act of sublimation absorbs the thermal energy from the aerodynamic heating and erodes the material away as opposed to heating the capsule. The surface of the heat shield for the Mercury spacecraft had a coating of aluminum with glassfiber in many layers. As the temperature rose to 1,100 °C (1,400 K) the layers would evaporate and take the heat with it. The spacecraft would become hot but not harmfully so.[5] The Space Shuttle used insulating tiles on its lower surface to absorb and radiate heat while preventing conduction to the aluminum airframe. The damage to the heat shield during liftoff of Space Shuttle Columbia contributed to its destruction upon reentry.


  1. ^ Kurganov, V.A. (3 February 2011), Adiabatic Wall Temperature, Thermopedia, doi:10.1615/AtoZ.a.adiabatic_wall_temperature, retrieved 2015-10-03 
  2. ^ Rich, Ben R.; Janos, Leo (1994). Skunk works: a personal memoir of my years at Lockheed. Warner Books. p. 218. ISBN 0751515035. 
  3. ^ Johnson, Clarence L.; Smith, Maggie (1985). Kelly: more than my share of it all. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press. p. 141. ISBN 0874744911. 
  4. ^ Bell Labs 1974, 9-17
  5. ^ "How Project Mercury Worked". How Stuff Works. Retrieved 2011-10-04. 
  • Moore, F.G., Approximate Methods for Weapon Aerodynamics, AIAA Progress in Astronautics and Aeronautics, Volume 186
  • Chapman, A.J., Heat Transfer, Third Edition, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1974
  • Bell Laboratories R&D, ABM Research and Development At Bell Laboratories, 1974. Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex