My invisible friends

Shuttle produces a “Prandtl-Glauert” condensation cloud

Apparently if you look very closely at this video of Discovery lifting off (click on “WB-57 Chase Plane Video”), about 50 seconds in you’ll see a white puff of cloud form around the shuttle. I watched the video myself and can’t quite spot it, but I’ve been assured it’s there — it’s just that the video is really shaky. Anyway, the cloud is caused by the deeply cool Prandtl-Glauert Singularity — a sudden, supercold pocket of air generated by a wing that is moving at near the speed of sound.

A full explanation is here:

The clouds appear for the same reason that clouds always form, namely, that the air has cooled to the point that the ambient water vapor condenses. Flows around bodies and wings always change the temperature and pressure of the fluid … At speeds near that of sound, the temperature and pressure variations occurring at every speed can also be exaggerated in steady level flight. The mechanism for this near-sonic exaggeration of the temperature variations is the so-called Prandtl-Glauert singularity which requires that pressure and temperature perturbations approach ±¥ as the flight speed approaches the ambient sound speed.

Someone once told me that just before the Concorde broke the sound barrier, if passengers looked out the window they could “see” sound waves forming along the wings. That’s got a lovely poetry to it, but it’s not true: What Concorde passengers were seeing were Prandtl-Glauert condensation clouds.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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