Mach Diamonds

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Joe asks:

Why does this rocket have that repeating pattern in its exhaust? I’m amazed that it’s so stable for so far as distance from the nozzle.

Excellent question! The diamond-shaped pattern seen in the rocket’s exhaust is actually a series of reflected shock waves and expansion fans. The rocket’s nozzle is designed to be efficient at high altitudes, which means that, at its nominal design altitude, the shape of the nozzle is such that the exhaust gases will be expanded to the same pressure as the ambient atmosphere. At sea level, the nozzle is overexpanded, meaning that the exhaust gases have been expanded to a lower pressure than the ambient. The supersonic exhaust has to reach ambient pressure, and it does so through an oblique shock right at the exit of the nozzle. However, the oblique shock, in addition to raising the pressure, turns the gases toward the exhaust centerline. To ensure flow symmetry, two additional oblique shocks form. But then the exhaust is at a higher pressure than ambient. Expansion fans form to reduce the pressure, but those, too, affect the direction the exhaust gases flow. The pattern, then, is a series of progressively weaker oblique shocks and expansion fans that raise the exhaust gas pressure to that of the ambient atmosphere.

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