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Washington Beat

Washington Beat

Two satellite designers win biggest engineering prize

The National Academy of Engineering has awarded its Charles Stark Draper Prize to two pioneer designers of communication satellites. The $400,000 prize is the world's largest exclusively for engineering achievement. Sharing the award are Californians John R. Pierce, 85, and Harold A. Rosen, 69. Leading a research team at AT&T Bell Laboratories in 1960, Pierce put a reflector in NASA's Project Echo. The result: the first satellite communication across North America. Pierce then designed Telstar 1, the world's first active communications satellite. Launched in 1962, it amplified signals rather than merely reflecting them. The next year, Rosen--at Hughes Aircraft--took satellites a leap forward. He devised a method of placing the Syncom II satellite in geosynchronous orbit. From about 22,300 miles above Earth, Syncom II provided continuous transmission of audiovisual signals. This enabled ground stations to relay signals almost halfway around the globe. The Draper Prize, established in 1988, recognizes those whose engineering achievements have "contributed to the well-being and freedom of humanity." Comments Academy President Harold Liebowitz: "The world was larger before the communication satellite was invented. Pierce and Rosen made us all neighbors."

Auto safety agency mandates stronger doors on hatchbacks

Designers must make rear doors on hatchback cars, station wagons, minivans, and sport-utility vehicles as strong as side doors. That's the final ruling from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The standard takes effect Sept. 1, 1997, for the 1998 model year. The aim is to help prevent ejections of passengers through rear doors in crashes. Because rear doors on various models open differently, the regulation changes tests of side doors to adapt to diverse arrangements of back-door latches and hinges. It also prescribes an additional test for those parts. In August 1994, NHTSA proposed extending its lock and retention standard for side doors to back doors. The final ruling embraces responses to the proposal.

You can search 20 years of past patent files on Internet

Your computer can now look up more than 5 million patents issued over the past 20 years. Reason: the Patent and Trademark Office this month opens a home page on the Internet's World Wide Web. Each patent file will include technology-rich data from the first page of the listing as published in the official gazette of the patent office. Your modem can reach the new home page at the following electronic address: http://www.

Air Force, rail agency to test magnetic levitation technology

The U.S. Air Force and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) have agreed to jointly develop the know-how for magnetic levitation. The military wants to use magnetic levitation technology, or "maglev," for hypersonic testing of propulsion systems and warheads for missile defense. The rail agency wants to study the commercial feasibility of applying the technology to high-speed ground transportation. Much research likely will take place on the High-Speed Test Track at Holloman Air Force Base, NM. Discussions are presently underway to convert that track for demonstrations of electromagnetic propulsion. Maglev uses magnetic forces to suspend, guide, and propel vehicles. This project calls for testing the design and fabrication of superconducting magnets and verifying computer codes that predict dynamic magnetic fields. Researchers also will examine the impact on test vehicles of velocities up to 300 mph and guideway irregularities. FRA Administrator Jolene M. Molitoris says a maglev passenger train could travel between downtown Los Angeles and downtown San Francisco in about an hour and a half. That compares with nearly 10 hours by rail today.

Desktop neural network program offers new ways to model data

A new program for personal computers can help engineers find important patterns in masses of data. Demonstrated in Arlington, VA, the software, called Neural Connection(R), provides fresh approaches to neural network computing. The product is useful for prediction, classification, time series analysis, and data segmentation. Running under Windows(R) 3.1 or higher, Neural Connection has an icon-based interface that offers 15 tools for building and exploring data models. Users can quickly drag data management, modeling, forecasting, and presentation icons from a toolbar to a workspace. The applications they frame look like flow charts. A product of statistical software supplier SPSS(R) Inc., of Chicago, Neural Connection also includes three statistical tools. Thus, users can build hybrid models or benchmark neural model results with standard statistical projections. For exploring data interactions, the program's "What if?" tool shows dependencies between pairs of input values.

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