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November 15, 2004

BehindTheMedspeak: Facial Aerobics - 'Natural Botox for the head'


That's what Valeria Georgescu call them.

She created the Face Val-U program (has Prince heard about this?) to apply what she's learned about resculpting the face noninvasively.

Above, she demonstrates the Platysma stretch.

Dana Scarton wrote an interesting article for the November 2 Washington Post Health section about facial aerobics and the very mixed opinions regarding their value.

Here's the story.


Trying to Save Face

'Facial Aerobics' Give Your Mug a Workout. But Claims They Erase Wrinkles Tend to Make Experts Scowl

Remember your mother's warning that if you made silly faces your mug would freeze that way?

People doing Face Val-U exercises clearly do not.

The Face Val-U program encourages many bizarre contortions, from a haughty, model-ish "snooty face" to a ghoulish, mouth-dropping, eye-popping "scream face."

The objective here isn't to look silly (though it certainly does that).

The purpose is to prevent wrinkles and reduce the visible effects of aging.

"Hello, dahling. How are you?" instructor Valeria Georgescu calls, hands on hips, nose canted upward in the aforementioned snooty face.

One by one, each of the 14 adults inside Studio One at the swank Sports Club/LA in the District's West End return the expression, complete with accent.

There are giggles and more than a few ridiculous faces, but embarrassment has a payoff, according to Georgescu, inventor of Face Val-U.

"The posture naturally lifts things and makes your brain understand how to move your muscles," she explained.

The fitness instructor's wrinkle-free face and taut bod belie her 39 years.

"I want people to walk out of here being aware of what they're doing with their face on a daily basis," she said.

"If you correct your facial posture, you're going to slow the process of aging and you won't be running for a quick fix so often."

She refers to her program as "natural Botox for the head."

Facial exercises are hardly new.

Many books promote the notion and some adults, mostly women in the middle years, have sworn allegiance to such techniques.

And while some exercises may yield improvements, don't expect your dermatologist or plastic surgeon to prescribe aerobics for the face.

Facial exercise "is what people did before they had Botox and fillers," said dermatologic surgeon Tina Alster, director of the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery.

"It's not going to hurt you, but I'm not convinced it's going to help you, either."

Facial exercises won't prevent or eliminate wrinkles, which are caused by skin turned inelastic due to aging or sun exposure and to the accumulated impact of hundreds of thousands of conventional facial expressions, said Michael Olding, chief of plastic surgery at George Washington University Medical Center and a spokesman for the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.

Still, he said, exercises "might make enough improvement with a patient to postpone a face-lift for a while."

After participating in a recent Face Val-U session, Olding acknowledged that performing such exercises on a regular basis could produce some potential benefits, including correcting or improving facial imbalances, reducing tension in the jaw and staving off ridges that develop around the upper lip.

He also said it was "much more fun than I thought it would be."

"From my perspective, the most interesting thing she does is to force people to focus on how they look and how they move their face. Everyone is asymmetrical when it comes to their face. They have a brow that is lower on one side, or they smile asymmetrically. By being aware of those things and strengthening the musculature, I believe she can be of some assistance in equalizing those asymmetries, so you'll look better."

Olding noted, though, that some minor asymmetries can actually make a face more appealing.

Despite a lack of evidence supporting her approach, Georgescu has converted some into believers.

"The lines around my mouth have definitely diminished," said Franmarie Kennedy, 56, pointing to the space above her upper lip.

Patricia Alvarez, like Kennedy a District resident, called Georgescu's instruction "a natural face-lift."

Alvarez, a youthful-looking 51, said her cheeks are stronger and more defined, her lips fuller and the skin on her neck tighter as a result of following Georgescu's regimen for the past year.

This includes working with a "Facial Flex," a $70 gizmo that, when inserted into the mouth, provides tension for strengthening the cheeks, mouth, chin and lips.

Facial Flex is not used during the class itself, so not all participants opt to order one.

Even Amanda Miller, 33, of Ann Arbor, Mich., who stumbled onto the class while in Washington visiting her parents, thought it was "cool."

"I had no idea what it was," she confessed. "I thought I was going to be doing Step."

Like other fitness classes, this one begins with a warm-up and ends with a cool-down.

The difference is that exercises focus on the four-dozen-plus muscles of the head and neck.

Instead of standing, participants sit.

Instead of lifting dumbbells, they roll a soft plastic ball the size of an orange over their cheeks and forehead.

Instead of grimacing, they smile - often on command.

"If you look at clients in most exercise classes, they just make the most horrible facial postures," Georgescu said.

"That's what creates wrinkles.... I try to get people to smile. Smiling is relaxing. Frowning is stressing. You use more muscles to frown... and the skin drags down, so everybody gets those lovely jowls and turkey necks.

"That's why you need to retrain your posturing. People go to surgeons and get their eyes lifted and their cheeks lifted, then three, four or five years down the road, they have to go back. Why? Because they're doing the same postures with their muscles."

Dermatologic surgeon Alster, who hasn't attended Georgescu's class, said facial exercises, if they provide benefit at all, are likely to do so in terms of toning.

"If you build up muscles in the cheeks, it will stretch out skin and give it a better drape, sort of like reupholstering a chair," she said.

A typical Face Val-U class starts with gentle patting of the cheeks, forehead and the underside of the jaw.

Regulars can be spotted by their white gloves, worn to keep fingers from sticking to the skin and pulling it.

The gloves, part of a $38.95 package, come with a massage ball, a map of the facial muscles and Georgescu's critique of your particular problem areas.

Sports Club/LA members pay no additional fee for taking the class at the club.

Wearing white gloves, black tights and a black sports bra and standing on a raised platform, Georgescu resembles a mime.

There's a bit of the performer on display as she instructs students to mimic her expressions, such as a sexy model pose in which she tosses back her head while seductively sliding fingers from cheeks to hairline.

Georgescu insists the postures allow for exercising and isolating specific muscles.

It's analogous to extending your hamstring in order to flex your quadriceps, she said.

Most exercises feel awkward and take time to master.

Try lifting your eyebrows without creasing your forehead.

Not easy? It's not supposed to be, Georgescu said.

Consider sucking in your stomach.

This isn't natural, either, but if you work on it long enough, it will become second nature, and you'll look and feel better.

Georgescu, who also offers private sessions starting at $75 an hour, developed Face Val-U 15 years ago.

"I read every book on facial pain... talked to lots of dentists and orthodontists. I studied Gray's Anatomy. I was self-taught," she said.

Once, while in her teens, she covered the end of a vacuum cleaner hose with a towel and applied it to her face.

"I needed to create resistance in order to see how to move the muscles separately and together," Georgescu explained.

"I wouldn't try that now," she says with a laugh.

"After 25 the elasticity in the face starts to disappear."

Georgescu coaches students on other aspects of facial care, from advising a reporter to relax the corrugator muscles between her brows to telling a young woman that she looks tired and her skin has lost its elasticity.

"You need more sleep and more water - like a little plant."

Like any fitness instructor, Georgescu preaches a regular regimen.

"Do it every day. Do it while you're driving. Do it while you're cooking dinner. Pay attention to your muscles.

"The most neglected muscles stare you right in the face every day."

November 15, 2004 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

iwanttobecool.org: 'I'm with Squip'


Ned Vizzini wrote a novel for teenagers called "Be More Chill," published earlier this year.

The book introduced squips - tiny ingestible supercomputers that give you social advice on the spot - to the world.

To market the book, he asked a friend, Adam Collett, to help him build a tongue-in-cheek website promoting squips.

The two of them built the Squipiverse (iwanttobecool.org), a virtual world devoted to all things Squip.

About half of the site's visitors believe squips are real.

To these credulous individuals, I say: you're about 20 years too early.

Now there are all kinds of sister sites, such as Squip News, which offers breaking stories and service articles.

Celebritysquip.com is devoted to musings about stars who couldn't be that cool on their own, such as Jessica Simpson.

Said Brian Heim, 14, of Dudley, North Carolina, who spends several hours a night overseeing the squip message board, "I'm stuck in this place called Dudley, which is really anti-reading and pro-hunting... I've kind of learned that cool is whatever you make cool to be."


Said Joe Stirt, of Charlottesville, Virginia, who spends several hours a day overseeing bookofjoe, "I'm struck by the fact that cool, like happiness, cannot be found by looking for it; it only appears as an incidental by-product of other activities. Thus, coolhunters and their ilk are no more than post-modern versions of religious pilgrims in the age of Chaucer, in search of the One True Cross."

[via Lynn Harris and the New York Times]

November 15, 2004 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack



Forget the spork (half spoon/half fork).

The "cutting-edge" buffet utensil this holiday season is the Knork.


Knork, a fork that cuts like a knife, was invented by Mike Miller, a Wichita student frustrated at needing two utensils to eat pizza.

He devised a fork with curved tines just sharp enough to cut through most foods while not injuring the eater's mouth.

A finger platform provides cutting leverage.

Who nees a Knork?

How about you, the last time you went to some party and tried to cut a piece of meat while holding the plate in one hand along with a glass of merlot?

Miller says the Knork is also useful for people with arthritis, limited motor skills, or nursing mothers, who often try to eat with one hand.

Available from their website in both disposable ($4.49 for a 24-pack) and stainless steel ($6.49 apiece).


Assuming they actually do cut, I'm gonna give this product a coveted bookofjoe 2004 Design Award: no moving parts takes it to the head of the class.

And what a great, Three Stooges-style name "Knork" is.

Miller sure wasn't gonna call it a Fife.

Don't take my word for it: here's a testimonial, one of many on the website:

    Most mornings my youngest daughter eats frozen waffles for breakfast and they were always hard to cut up. Thanks to the Knorks that you gave me, she can now cut them herself easily. I thank you every morning for them. She also uses them to cut her meat that I used to have to cut, so it's great. You should be selling these like crazy. Thanks again. They have been very useful.

[via the Washington Post]

November 15, 2004 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

BehindTheMedspeak: 'High Doses of Vitamin E Found to Raise Risk of Dying'


That's the headline over last Thursday's Washington Post front-page story by Rob Stein.

The editor who created that headline should know better.


Well, maybe I shouldn't single her out: after all, the Wall Street Journal's headline read

Vitamin E Supplements Can Pose Serious Risks, A New Study Concludes

Then there's the New York Times, which got it right; they headlined their story

Large Doses of Vitamin E May Be Harmful

All right, enough teasing, let's cut to the chase.

The actual findings of the study, to be reported in the January 4, 2005 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine?

Someone taking 400 I.U. (International Units) a day for five years would face a 5% higher risk of dying than someone who didn't take any extra Vitamin E.

To put things in perspective, the Institute of Medicine recommends no more than 1000 I.U. daily.

Dr. James Robins, a Harvard statistician quoted in the Times story, said, "They may be right but they somewhat oversold it statistically. It is definitely true that ... a high dose may be bad. I wouldn't tell anyone to take this stuff, but this is hardly definitive evidence."

Maret G. Traber, a researcher at Oregon State University, told the Washington Post, "Vitamin E won't kill you."

I couldn't agree more.


What, me worry?

What a crock, a 5% increase.


That's meaningless, regardless of how much the study's investigators massaged their data until they came up with something that was statistically significant.

No wonder no one believes anything they read: reporters and editors create alarm and dismay to attract attention, only to retract or ignore evidence that's not so eye-catching.

I'm reminded of the many studies that say something or other doubles your risk of getting cancer.

Hey, that's scary, right?

Maybe not, when the cancer risk increases from 1/100,000 to 2/100,000.

Yeah, but it doubled.

Yeah, but so what?


Gimme a break.

November 15, 2004 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The Whirling Dervishes of Damascus


They're currently touring the U.S.

Tonight they're at the Athenaeum Theatre in Chicago, then it's on to Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley on Wednesday and Royce Hall at UCLA in Los Angeles on Saturday, November 20.

The 11-man troupe consists of the Four Dervishes, Ensemble Al-Kindi of Aleppo, a six-member band led by Julien Jalal Eddine Weiss, and vocalist Sheikh Hamza Shakhur.

Their show is billed as "Sufi Songs and Ritual Dance of Syria."

They performed at Carnegie Hall two weeks ago, and Martin Johnson raved about their austere elegance in last Wednesday's Wall Street Journal.

Have a look at their website, and be sure to watch the video.

November 15, 2004 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

BehindTheMedspeak: Bottled water is contaminated


You know, this is getting kind of repetitive, don't you think?

I mean, first it was your tap water at home; then the water in airplanes.

So you figure well, you'll drink Perrier.

Guess what?

Nowhere to run,


nowhere to hide.

Makes you wonder if the fancy-shmancy website finewaters.com, dedicated to the art of finding the perfect drinking water, is just so much hot - or cold, as the case may be - E. Coli.

Here's Marilyn Chase's story from the November 2 Wall Street Journal about the latest dirty laundry in the world of water.


Bottled Water Isn't Always Pure

Bottled water's image as pure and healthful isn't always necessarily true, especially for hospital patients, who might be better off sipping tap water, a Dutch study suggested.

A small study of 68 bottles of mineral water from Europe and elsewhere has found contamination with bacteria and fungi, said Rocus Klont, a researcher at the University Medical Center Nijmegen, in Nijmegen, Netherlands.

No U.S. bottled-water brands were included in the study.

Healthy members of the general public "should not worry," said Dr. Klont.

"The question is if it might pose a risk to people whose immune systems are severely compromised."

The study found traces of Legionella bacteria, which causes Legionnaire's disease when inhaled.

It also found evidence of the mold penicillium, part of a ubiquitous family of fungi, some of which cause illness while others are used to make products including the antibiotic penicillin.

The study was presented at the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobials and Chemotherapy in Washington.

People with strong immune systems often can fight off exposure to small amounts of germs.

And it isn't known whether the bacteria and fungi found in the water could cause infection among people with weak immune systems.

However, Dr. Klont cautioned that such patients, including bone-marrow transplant patients, shouldn't assume that bottled water is pure, and might fare better by drinking well-tested tap water or sterilized water.

Depending on location, tap water may be more strictly tested and regulated than bottled water.

Dr. Klont declined to name any specific water brands because he said the sample sizes were small and unrepresentative.


Researchers also lacked information about the waters' source, production, handling, distribution patterns, and points of sale - information needed to adequately assess individual brand safety.

Dr. Klont's team tested bottled mineral waters from nine European countries: Norway, France, Italy, Germany, Greece, Austria, Spain, Hungary and Turkey.

They also tested water from India, Morocco, Australia, Canada, Tanzania, Mexico and Cuba.

In all, 68 bottles were tested.

He obtained the water samples by asking members of his lab to bring home mineral water from their vacations.

The study was prompted by the common practice in Europe of placing a bottle of mineral water by a patient's bedside table, Dr. Klont said.


Several important questions await further study.

Dr. Klont said he doesn't know how the contaminant got into the water nor does he know the likelihood of disease from finding traces of Legionella bacteria in six samples.

Legionella causes Legionnaire's disease, a respiratory ailment that can be fatal, when inhaled.

It isn't known whether drinking the water could produce a backwash of microscopic droplets that could be inhaled to cause illness.

In the U.S., consumers buy more bottled water than beer, milk or coffee, according to Beverage Marketing Corp., a New York-based consulting firm.

Sales of bottled water exceeded $8.3 billion in 2003, with volume of nearly 6.4 billion gallons, rising 7.5% over 2002 volume.

The two largest U.S. brands, PepsiCo Inc.'s Aquafina and Coca-Cola Co.'s Dasani, both are purified from tap water in a process called "reverse osmosis," which removes virtually all particles from the water, including bacteria and minerals. (Certain minerals are added back into the Dasani brand.)

Other top brands include Poland Spring, Arrowhead and Deer Park, which are regional brands derived from natural springs. All three are owned by Nestlé SA.

Coca-Cola was forced to pull its Dasani brand from the U.K. market in March, shortly after the product's launch there, after tests it conducted found excessive levels of bromate, a chemical that can increase the risk of cancer from long-term exposure.


Coke said the elevated levels of bromate resulted from calcium chloride it had added to the water to meet a U.K. legal requirement.

November 15, 2004 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

'Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi'


That's Ami on the right and Yumi on the left.

They're the stars of the Cartoon Network's new show, an animated series based on the real-life Japanese pop stars Ami Onuki and Yumi Yoshimura.

In Japan they're known simply as Puffy, but we've already got one of those, hence in the U.S. they're Puffy Ami Yumi.

The show premiers this coming Friday at 7:30 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 6:30 p.m. Central time.

Here's yesterday's New York Times story by J.D. Considine.


Big in Japan, but Made in the U.S.A.

Ami and Yumi, a pair of plucky young rock stars, are thrilled when their manager introduces them to a cute little girl named Harmony, who's their No. 1 fan.

Their enthusiasm wanes, however, when they find Harmony hiding in their sock drawer.

Yumi tosses the sycophantic stalker out the window of their (moving) tour bus, but Harmony keeps turning up with predictably wacky results.

"Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi," which has its debut on Friday on the Cartoon Network, is an animated series based on two real Japanese pop stars,

Ami Onuki and Yumi Yoshimura, a k a Puffy Ami Yumi.

In Japan they're known simply as Puffy, but North America already has a Puffy.

They have been familiar faces since 1996, when "Ajia no Junshin" ("True Asia") their debut single in imitation of the group E.L.O., sold more than a million copies.

Like most Japanese pop acts, the group is nearly unknown in the United States, which is what the new cartoon is intended to change.

For this is no Japanese import; their Japanese fans won't even see it.

"Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi" is a made-in-the-U.S.A. cartoon intended to turn average American kids into fans of a Japanese pop group.

Not surprisingly, "Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi" is the work of a crazed fan.

Sam Register, the Cartoon Network vice president who created the show, had never heard of Puffy Ami Yumi until the summer of 2001, when he stumbled across the video for their single "Boogie Woogie No. 5" on a cable access channel in New York.

"I waited until the end of the video, which I never do, to find out if I could see their name," he said.

"But the credits were in Japanese, so I had no idea who they were."

A year later Mr. Register happened to hear the song again, this time on National Public Radio.

"I heard the words Puffy Ami Yumi, and I heard the word Sony," he said. "That's all I needed in my quiver to go after it."

Meanwhile, Sony Japan was trying to establish Puffy Ami Yumi in North America with relatively little success.

Although the duo had sold more than 14 million albums and had made a popular television variety show in Japan, the odds of making a big impact in the United States were small.

Apart from Pink Lady, who had a minor hit ("Kiss in the Dark") and a famously bad television show in 1979, there hasn't been a major American breakthrough by a Japanese pop act since Kyu Sakamoto topped the charts with "Sukiyaki" in 1963.

Mr. Register decided Puffy Ami Yumi would be different.

"A lot of Japanese music is horrible," he said.

But where juggernauts like Ms. Hamasaki or the charmingly amateurish girl group Morning Musume tend to favor either impossibly upbeat dance tunes or overly sentimental ballads, Puffy Ami Yumi's sound seemed more familiar than exotic.

It is firmly rooted in rock 'n' roll, and the producer, Tamio Okuda, wrapped the songs in arrangements that evoked rock acts from the Beatles and the Who to Rockpile and Elvis Costello.

Still, it wasn't until Mr. Register got the duo to record a theme song for the "Teen Titans," a semicomic cartoon series about adolescent superheroes, that Puffymania began to take hold at Cartoon Network.

"Everybody at the network started singing the 'Teen Titans' theme song," he said. "That gave me the boost I needed."

Given the success Cartoon Network has had with its Toonami block of Japanese animation from 7 to 11 on Saturday nights and the continuing success of syndicated series like "Yu-Gi-Oh!" and "Digimon," it would be natural to expect "Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi" to resemble anime.

But its look is more "Ren & Stimpy" than "Ruroni Kenshin" (one of the channel's current anime hits), with garish colors, simple character designs and a general lack of visual clutter.

Likewise, the plots tend toward the simple slapstick of American kidvid- no surprise, given the show's intended audience, 6 to 11.

Some episodes touch on the backstage life of rock 'n' rollers, but more often their antics are nonmusical, as when they take a part-time "dream job" in a candy factory and end up unleashing a monstrous taffy ball that destroys the town.

Yet for all that, "Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi" does relatively little to Americanize the pop group.

True, the voices of the animated Ami and Yumi are by native English speakers, Janice Kawaye and Grey Delisle, but Ms. Onuki and Ms. Yoshimura also appear in each episode, doing live-action skits in a mixture of Japanese and strongly accented English.

And the songs, which are heavily featured, are left in the original Japanese without subtitles.

Thanks to several years of untranslated anime theme songs, hearing sung Japanese isn't unprecedented on Cartoon Network, but the few words of untranslated Japanese in live action segments come as a surprise, reminding viewers that these are not American rock stars.

In a telephone interview in which an interpreter combined their answers, they said: "There was no pressure from the network in changing who we are and what we do. Sometimes we would wonder, 'Is it O.K. if a song is only in Japanese,' and they'd say, 'That's what's good about it.' "

There has always been something essentially cartoony about Puffy Ami Yumi.

Beginning with the cover art for their second single, "Kore ga Watashi no Ikirumichi"" ("That's My Way of Life"), Ms. Onuki and Ms. Yoshimura appeared frequently as cartoons designed by Rodney Alan Greenblat, a New York artist noted for the childlike whimsy of his work.

There were also short animated sequences in "Pa-Pa-Pa-Pa-Puffy," their television show in Japan for four and a half years.

In creating the show, the Cartoon Network tried to capture the real-life relationship between the long-haired, sweetly girlish Ms. Onuki and the spiky-haired, sardonic Ms. Yoshimura.

There's a strong sense of play in their interaction, reflected in the cartoon, with a laid-back wit that at times recalls the press conference drolleries of the Beatles (or would if the Beatles spoke Japanese).

When they are in front of the cameras, mugging their way through one of the live action introductory segments for "Hi Hi," their timing is so flawless and their facial expressions so coordinated you would think they shared a single comic brain.

Even so, they recognize that conquering America will require significant effort.

"We'd like to learn more English and be able to communicate with people," admitted Ms. Onuki.

Both hope their work will reduce cultural and language barriers.


"But," Ms. Yoshimura said, "we'll just work with what we have and enjoy what we do. That's the philosophy of Puffy."

Hey - that's amazing, 'cause it's mine too.

Clearly, great minds think alike.

November 15, 2004 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (27) | TrackBack

San Francisco to Washington, D.C. in 20 minutes


That's how long it would take if you could travel aboard a "scramjet" going Mach 10 - that's 7,200 m.p.h.

NASA's experimental rocket-assisted X-43 is scheduled for a 10-second-long flight this afternoon, 110,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean.

Takeoff of the rocket's carrier B-52B is scheduled for approximately 1 p.m. Pacific time, with rocket ignition about an hour later.

Check out this superb website NASA has created to keep you up to the minute - it's got great pictures, videos, tons of stuff to keep you busy and distracted until zero hour later today.

If successful, this X-43 flight will break the aircraft speed record set by a companion craft this past March 24.

That one took it up to 5,200 m.p.h., Mach 6.83.

The upcoming flight will be the third and final flight of the Hyper-X program, intended to show that such speeds are indeed attainable with today's technology.

A ramjet uses a vehicle's forward motion to bring air into the engine's combustion chamber.

A scramjet - short for supersonic combustion ramjet - is a ramjet that ignites fuel in air traveling at supersonic speeds, sort of like "lighting a match in a hurricane," according to NASA.

Guy Gugliotta wrote a front-page story for last Wednesday's Washington Post about the upcoming mission.

It follows.

With 'Scramjet,' NASA Shoots for Mach 10

They call it a "scramjet," an engine so blindingly fast that it could carry an airplane from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., in about 20 minutes - or even quicker.

So fast it could put satellites in space.

So fast it could drop a cruise missile on an enemy target, almost like shooting a rifle.

Next week, NASA plans to break the aircraft speed record for the second time in 7½ months by flying its rocket-assisted X-43A scramjet craft 110,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean at speeds close to Mach 10 - about 7,200 mph, or 10 times the speed of sound.

The flight will last perhaps 10 seconds and end with the pilotless aircraft plunging to a watery grave 850 miles off the California coast.

But even if the X-43A doesn't set the record, it has already proved that the 40-year-old dream of "hypersonic" flight - using air-breathing engines to reach speeds above Mach 5 (3,800 mph) - has become reality.

Unlike rockets, which must carry oxygen with them as a "combustor" to ignite the fuel supply, scramjets take oxygen from the atmosphere, offering a huge savings in aircraft weight, and researchers around the world would like to take advantage.

In northeast Australia, a scramjet team funded by the U.S. and Australian armed forces will try for Mach 10 next year as a first step in using a scramjet to put satellites in space.

The U.S. Air Force hopes to demonstrate within five years a scramjet-driven cruise missile fast enough to drive explosives deep into hardened targets.

Other projects are moving forward in France and Japan.

Under NASA's $250 million Hyper-X program, engineers at Langley Research Center here and the Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif., designed and built three aluminum scramjet aircraft, each one 12 feet long and weighing about 2,800 pounds .

Controllers aborted the first test flight in 2001 after the rocket booster malfunctioned.

But the second, on March 24, reached Mach 6.83 (5,200 mph), shattering the world speed record for air-breathing, non-rocket aircraft, previously held by a jet-powered missile.

The highest speeds by manned aircraft were achieved by SR-71, the U.S. spy plane known as the "Blackbird," capable of flying in excess of Mach 3 (2,300 mph).

"The idea was to demonstrate these technologies," said Luat T. Nguyen, deputy manager for the program that designed X-43A.

"We've done that. This is the first scramjet to work, and it is the only one at this point."

Next week's third flight will test the limits of the X-43A.

Temperatures will be significantly higher: The leading edge of the aircraft's nose will reach about 3,700 degrees Fahrenheit, 1,600 degrees hotter than during the March flight.

Also, Nguyen added, "it's more of a challenge to get it to operate at Mach 10 rather than Mach 7. You want it to be robust enough to give us the level of performance we're looking for, and at Mach 10, the constraints are a little narrower."

Regardless of the outcome, however, the third flight will be the last.

The Hyper-X program ends, and there are no plans to replace it. The next steps are largely up to researchers elsewhere.

"What they have done is lay the foundation on how to go further," Allan Paull, of Australia's University of Queensland, the leader of the U.S.-Australia "HyShot" scramjet project, said of NASA.

"We live in a society of high tech that's built over time. We went from the horse and cart to scramjets in 200 years."

Barring mechanical glitches or bad weather, the X-43A and its Pegasus rocket booster will leave Dryden between 9:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Pacific time, slung below the belly of a B-52B launch aircraft.

About 50 miles off the California coast, the B-52 will drop the craft at an altitude of 40,000 feet.

The booster rocket will ignite and bring the X-43A's speed close to Mach 10 at an altitude of 110,000 feet.

At that point, controllers will fire two small pistons to jettison the rocket.

Then they will open the cowl covering the X-43A's air intake and light the engine.

Scramjets work on the same principle as all jet engines - igniting fuel in compressed air and aiming the expanding gases to the rear to propel the aircraft forward.

Standard turbojets use fans to compress the air and can reach speeds of about Mach 2.2 (1,600 mph).

"Ramjets" can reach supersonic speeds of perhaps Mach 6 (4,600 mph) by using the plane's forward motion alone to bring air into the combustion chamber.

But the air must be slowed to subsonic speed for ignition.


Scramjets (short for "supersonic combustion ramjets") are ramjets that ignite fuel in air traveling at supersonic speeds, a feat that NASA compares to "lighting a match in a hurricane."

For this to work, virtually the entire aircraft becomes an enormous scoop, opening to receive the air and compressing it before injecting a chemical called silane, which ignites in the presence of air.

The hydrogen fuel is added once the flame is lighted.

Neither a ramjet nor a scramjet can operate from a standing start.

The Blackbird used a turbojet to reach high enough speeds for its ramjet to work.

The X-43A uses the rocket, and Nguyen said Langley engineers predict the X-43A will reach a peak speed of Mach 9.6 or Mach 9.7 before it burns all its liquid hydrogen fuel and glides into the sea.

The X-43A will leave behind both a body of data and a practical demonstration of an idea that aeronautical engineers have worked on by fits and starts, through good and bad funding years, for more than four decades.

"They put together a well-thought-out experimental process, including ground tests, wind tunnel tests and flight," said Charlie Brink, scramjet program manager for the Air Force Research Laboratory at Ohio's Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

"The coordination of all this [ground and flight] data to see how it matched was spectacular. It provided a fundamental baseline."

The Air Force's cruise missile program, known as "HyTech," is developing a scramjet that burns hydrocarbon fuels - easier to handle than liquid hydrogen.

"The scramjet can travel hundreds of miles in minutes to defeat time-critical targets," said Bob Mercier, deputy for technology in the Air Force laboratory's aerospace propulsion division.

"In addition, the high speed could improve penetration of hardened and deeply buried targets."

Australia's Paull said in a telephone interview that HyShot hopes to use scramjets to launch small satellites cheaply, inserting them as the second stage of three-stage launch vehicles.

A rocket would get the spacecraft to scramjet speed, and a third rocket stage would propel it once it gets above Earth's atmosphere.

"Putting something into space and making it stay there are two different things," Paull said.

It takes a speed of 25,000 mph to escape the pull of Earth's gravity and get into orbit, "and we'd like to get 18,000 [mph] from a scramjet," he added.

"Can we do it? I don't know the answer. If it doesn't work out, we'll just say, 'A rocket's the best you can do, mate,' and pack it up."

November 15, 2004 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

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