Jordan's Desert Calm Shattered by Speedsters

Or Jordan's nomadic Bedouins, it's an invasion of infinite curiosity: Their featureless southern desert is now crawling with foreign aliens and a menacing-looking UFO.

They keep their camels back and approach the machine reluctantly - soldiers and camel keepers alike - then reach out to touch this Thrust SupersonicCar that links them directly to the future.

The curiosity is not limited to desert natives. The complex machine draws the awe of Western visitors long used to Internet access and cellular phones.

"This is a revolutionary car," says Richard Noble, designer and head of the British team. He created the machine from scratch, and spent 2-1/2 years making calculations with rocket-sled model testing and computational fluid dynamics to ensure the sound barrier could be safely reached on land.

The result is a high-tech vehicle in every way. The chassis is strong steel with a Kevlar carbon-fiber composite body and titanium rear elements to protect against heat and vibration of the engines, which put out 180 decibels - enough noise to split rock. British Royal Air Force pilot Andy Green wears headphones that use phase distortion to cancel the roar.

Just before ignition, a dusty laptop computer is plugged into the fuselage to fine-tune the "live-action" suspension system and 142 other sensors.

To prevent the car from taking off - the greatest risk - 60 percent of the 9-ton weight is concentrated on the broad, all-aluminum front wheels. Calculations are tight: If the front end lifts as little as 1 degree - even 1/2 degree - at the speed of sound, it could lift the nose up and destroy the ThrustSSC with an equivalent of 40 times the force of gravity. If the nose lifts, the rear of the car is automatically jacked up to compensate within 1/100th of a second.

Despite the risks, the Thrust team feels it has done its homework, to the awe of all onlookers, including the Bedouins.

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