Types of Flow

An understanding of aerodynamics, like that of any other physical science, is obtained through a “building-block” approach—we dissect the discipline, form the parts into nice polished blocks of knowledge, and then later attempt to reassemble the blocks to form an understanding of the whole. An example of this process is the way that different types of aerodynamic flows are categorized and visualized. Although nature has no trouble setting up the most detailed and complex flow with a whole spectrum of interacting physical phenomena, we must attempt to understand such flows by modeling them with less detail, and neglecting some of the (hopefully) less significant phenomena. As a result, a study of aerodynamics has evolved into a study of numerous and distinct types of flow. The purpose of this section is to itemize and contrast these types of flow, and to briefly describe their most important physical phenomena.

1.10.1 Continuum Versus Free Molecule Flow

Consider the flow over a body, say, e. g., a circular cylinder of diameter d. Also, consider the fluid to consist of individual molecules, which are moving about in random motion. The mean distance that a molecule travels between collisions with neighboring molecules is defined as the mean-free path X. If X is orders of magnitude smaller than the scale of the body measured by d, then the flow appears to the body as a continuous substance. The molecules impact the body surface so frequently that the body cannot distinguish the individual molecular collisions, and the surface feels the fluid as a continuous medium. Such flow is called continuum flow. The other extreme is where X is on the same order as the body scale; here the gas molecules are spaced so far apart (relative to d) that collisions with the body surface occur only infrequently, and the body surface can feel distinctly each molecular impact. Such flow is calledfree molecular flow. For manned flight, vehicles such as the space shuttle encounter free molecular flow at the extreme outer edge of the atmosphere, where the air density is so low that X becomes on the order of the shuttle size. There are intermediate cases, where flows can exhibit some characteristics of both continuum and free molecule flows; such flows are generally labeled “low-density flows” in contrast to continuum flow. By far, the vast majority of practical aerodynamic applications involve continuum flows. Low-density and free molecule flows are just a small part of the total spectrum of aerodynamics. Therefore, in this book we will always deal with continuum flow;

i. e., we will always treat the fluid as a continuous medium.