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Tiny aircraft, black holes are in the news

Insect-sized aircraft, smog-reducing power-plant burners and space-time distortions caused by black holes are among the MIT research topics that have been reported on by newspapers and other media recently.


The development of tiny aircraft the size of large insects was the subject of a recent New York Times article. Micro air vehicles (MAVs) have a number of potential applications. For example, the military is interested in producing miniature intelligence-gathering planes, wrote Warren Leary.

However, "nothing about making micro air vehicles is going to be easy," Dr. William Davis, manager of the MAV program at Lincoln Lab, told Mr. Leary. "With planes this small, all the rules change and everything becomes challenging."

Among the elements that must be designed for the tiny craft are their engines. A team led by Professor Alan Epstein of aeronautics and astronautics is developing "the smallest jet turbine engines ever built, projected to be only a half-inch in diameter and a quarter-inch long," Mr. Leary reported.


MIT work on a burner that reduces emissions of smog-producing nitrogen oxides (NOx) was featured in the November/December 1997 issue of Public Power magazine.

"Because of environmental concerns and government regulations, steam power plant operators are turning to a variety of NOx reduction techniques to clean up existing facilities," wrote William Siuru. "One promising new technique is the patented radially stratified flame core burner (RSFC)." The original work on RSFC, which "produces a fuel-rich, high-temperature zone to reduce NOx," was conducted at MIT. The research team was led by Professor Emeritus J������������������nos Be���r of chemical engineering. (MIT Tech Talk, May 14, 1997).


"Let's do the twist! According to Einstein, everything does." So begins an article in the November 15 issue of Science News about two teams' evidence that space-time gets distorted near certain galactic objects (MIT Tech Talk, November 12).

"An inescapable consequence of Einstein's theory of general relativity, this seemingly bizarre concept was described nearly 80 years ago, but until now, researchers lacked the equipment to test it," wrote Ron Cowen of Science News.

Dr. Wei Cui, a research scientist at the Center for Space Research, led the team that studied the phenomenon -- known as frame-dragging -- around spinning black holes. An Italian team did the same for spinning neutron stars.

With respect to his team's conclusions, Dr. Cui told Alexandra Witze of the Dallas Morning News that "it's very hard to claim these things with 100 percent confidence. But so far, the numbers seem to work out pretty well."

The frame-dragging work has generated considerable interest in television and print media, including stories by CNN, USA Today, BBC Radio, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post and several Italian newspapers.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 17, 1997.

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