Developments to Watch
RADAR FOR THOSE HARD-TO-SPOT MISSILES
NAVAL SHIPS MAY SOON lose their sitting-duck vulnerability to missiles. Vessels have little time to defend against the Exocet and other modern missiles that home in on targets at 20 miles a minute and fly low enough to hide in the clutter of radar reflections from waves. But scientists at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington are working on a new radar system that promises to spot such threats faster. It could also improve the radars used for air-traffic control, severe-weather warnings, and pollution monitoring.
The new radar's key component is a so-called agile mirror. Because it's really a reflective sheet of gas molecules, it can reflect 5,000 radar beams every second while pointing each one in a different direction. This would enable radar operators to monitor a 360-degree area while tracking multiple missiles. And unlike current radar systems, agile mirrors could "paint" their targets with beams of different frequencies. "Two frequencies tell you a lot more about the target," says Robert A. Meger, head of NRL's Charged Particle Physics Branch--and would be better at spotting surface-skimming missiles.
A mechanical mirror would be too big to shift position 5,000 times a second. That's why the NRL uses a hot, charged gas, or plasma. The plasma mirror is created by firing a line of electrons through a neutral gas in a box the size of a file cabinet. Meger hopes to have a prototype ready to test by 1998.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top
LET YOUR FINGER DO THE CHARGING
CREDIT-CARD COMPANIES lost about $1.3 billion last year as a result of fraud, according to estimates by MasterCard International Inc. But the Purchase (N.Y.) company in June will begin testing a "smart card" that could eliminate 80% of bogus charges, says Joel S. Lisker, MasterCard's senior vice-president for security. Only mail and phone orders would remain vulnerable.
The idea is to store information about a person's fingerprint in a chip embedded in the plastic. The data would be a long, encrypted number describing selected features, such as the location of the ends of certain fingerprint ridges. MasterCard evaluated other so-called biometric techniques, including voice prints, but decided to go with the "finger minutiae" approach developed by Identicator Technology Corp. in San Bruno, Calif.
If tests show the concept works as expected, card readers in stores and banks would have to be outfitted with a pad that scans a cardholder's fingertip and compares the number it gets with the number in the card. These might cost only $20 each in bulk. And they would end the need for card users to remember a personal ID number. Says Lisker: "The only thing to remember is which finger you `enrolled,"' or had scanned, when you applied for your smart card.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top
PUSHING THE DATA ENVELOPE
A STARTUP FOUNDED ON superscript14YEARS OF research by a University of Oregon physics professor is claiming a world record in data-storage density. Templex Technology Corp. in Eugene, Ore., does the job by salting a yttrium aluminum garnet crystal with billions of ions of the rare-earth metal thulium. The setup is refrigerated to cryogenic temperatures, and data is written with bursts of laser light. Each ion, depending upon its interaction with the crystal, is responsive to one of 1 million colors of laser light. Since each memory location is studded with ions of all colors, it can theoretically store up to 1 million bits of data.
So far, the company hasn't come close to that theoretical limit. Its best effort has produced a density of 8 gigabits per square inch, or six times the record 1.3 gigabits per square inch on IBM's latest magnetic disk drive for computers.
Thomas W. Mossberg, the professor who serves as Templex' chief technology officer, developed the technique with Air Force backing. While it resembles holography, it stores data in computer-friendly serial form, not as holographic "pages." Templex is seeking business partners while continuing to work with the Pentagon.EDITED BY OTIS PORT By Peter CoyReturn to top