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 June 04 - 10, 2001

Its been an interesting month in the world of technology as always. You can purchase a Robofish to help soothe your stress, or watch the skies for a newest hypersonic plane. Here's the details!

NASA has introduced its newest aircraft that is designed to accelerate through the atmosphere at speeds up to 7,200 mph. The unpiloted X-43A made its maiden flight in mid-May, flying under its own power for just 10 seconds and about 17 miles before crashing into the Pacific Ocean. NASA said the plane, is designed to fly seven to 10 times faster than the speed of sound. Mach 1 is the speed of sound, which varies by altitude and is about 750 mph at sea level. After the initial flight, two more of the 12-foot-long, surfboard-shaped planes will fly at six-month intervals. If successful, the planes will smash the speed record of Mach 6.7, set by an X-15 in October 1967. "This is an aviation first," said Vince Rausch, manager of the X-43A program at NASA's Langley Research Center. Unlike the rocket-powered X-15, the X-43A has an air-breathing engine. It carries hydrogen for fuel, but must scoop oxygen out of the atmosphere to combust it. Conventional rockets carry both fuel and an oxidant. Currently, the fastest air-breathing aircraft is the SR-71 "Blackbird," which cruises slightly faster than Mach 3. The X-43A should become the first air-breathing plane to go hypersonic, or faster than Mach 5. The $185 million X-43A project is purely experimental. Engineers will collect flight data needed to build future planes perhaps 200 feet in length. The first piloted prototypes may fly by 2025. The X-43A, or Hyper-X, will probably never carry commercial passengers because of the high acceleration, heat generated by friction with the atmosphere and the difficulty of turning a plane at such high speeds.

NASA has also been involved in more earthly endeavers. Technology developed for astronauts who walked on the moon is now helping kids with body-cooling problems. The so-called "cool suits" enable children with HED (hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia) and other sweat gland disorders to go outside without fear of heat stroke. "The children of the night don't have to be in the dark anymore," said Sarah Moody, founder of the HED (hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia) Foundation. "Those children are out enjoying the life." The most recent recipient of the NASA space suit, which costs about $2,000, was 8-year-old Cardi Hicks from Magnolia, Texas. Because of the suit Cardi was able to go outside in the sun and play for the first time. He donned the cloth white suit and played tag around a courtyard with his cousins and friends. "This has opened the door for a wide range of medical problems," Moody said. "I can see it as going on because we talk about global warming. I mean heck someday we'll probably all be wearing those things." The liquid-cooled garment was first developed to protect the Apollo astronauts from the high temperatures on the moon. "It's amazing to think that technology that allowed men to walk on the moon allows children to go outside and head into the sunlight," Moody said.

Japanese toy giant Takara Company has taken the grief out of maintaining a fish aquarium. Instead of fish food, just add batteries to keep them going. The Aquaroid line features fish, jellyfish, and turtles. "They're hypnotic to look at," said Paul Chavez, who imports the jellyfish for his Robotoys store in Los Angeles. "They're very soothing." About the size of a large grapefruit, the robot jellyfish gently moves up and down its tank when the aquarium lights are turned on. Thanks to sensors, it doesn't touch the sides. Customers of Chavez express "astonishment" at the sight of one of the jellyfish moving around in its tank, he said. "They say 'they're beautiful, they're great, they're fantastic, they're pretty.' " Powered by penlight batteries, the plastic critters cost 5,000 yen (US $40). They "swim" gently around the aquarium until they run into the side wall or another creature, when a nose-mounted sensor turns them around and they gently move off in the other direction. The company estimates it will sell more than 100,000 units this year of its Aquaroid Tower, a foot-high lava lamp-like aquarium that houses a jellyfish. "Observing the gentle rhythms of the jellyfish has a 'healing' effect," Terumi Endo, a spokeswoman for the toymaker, told the London Times. "Research shows it is good for soothing nerves and alleviating stress." According to The Times, the jellyfish was a big hit with stressed-out workers who "spend hours staring into the glass tank that houses the creature."

Then there's the ScreenFridge, a standard fridge that also has a built-in touch-sensitive colour screen and an ADSL connection to the Internet. Co-backed by Swedish mobile firm Ericsson and Scandinavian telco TeleDanmark, this internet ready refrigerator is undergoing trials in the UK. "We thought that the Screenfridge would be most popular with families, because they are often the most time-sensitive. We actually found that lifestyle is more important. Many different types of people liked the Screenfridge because it was easy to access information quickly from the kitchen," explained Linda Windmark, consumer knowledge manager for E2Home. "People really appreciate the accessibility and ease of use. They've told us that even though they have cookery books next to the Screenfridge they still log on to find a recipe. Of course, they can then download the ingredients and add them to their shopping list," said Diane Chayer, project manager for TeleDanmark. The most frequently used applications were information-based services, such as weather, travel and traffic news. Sending email and SMS messages were the second most-popular type of application.