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An expanded Web version of segments seen on CNN
Tomorrow Today

NASA probe may rewrite book on space travel

Deep Space One
Deep Space One  
October 2, 1998
Web posted at: 6:35 a.m. EDT (1035 GMT)

(CNN) -- It's a look at the future of space flight: a next-generation spacecraft powered by a tremendously efficient new engine, guided by an ultrasmart computer and able to find its way around the solar system without help from Earth.

Deep Space One, scheduled for launch in late October, will provide a $150 million trial run for a dozen new technologies that NASA says may dominate space flight into the next century.

Among Deep Space One's innovations: a new, unproven ion-propulsion engine and an unproven computerized navigator.

Affordability is the goal of projects like Deep Space One
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Deep Space One boasts a dozen new technologies
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"We are taking some risks now so that future missions don't have to," chief mission engineer Mark Rayman told CNN. "The technologies that we are proving here are those that can make or break many of the missions that we have in our future and on our drawing boards."

The ion engine is probably the unmanned spacecraft's most important feature.

It bombards a propellant called xenon with electricity and shoots the resulting ions out the back at 5 miles per second.

The technology dates back to the 1960s, but Rayman stumbled across it in his youth. (Audio 43 K/3 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

The engine is 10 times more efficient than a chemical rocket. Its thrust uses no more force than the weight of a piece of paper on your hand. When it burns nonstop for weeks, the engine will eventually speed up the spacecraft by 10,000 mph.

Rayman calls it "acceleration with patience."

Deep Space One's computer pilot should always know where it is without having to consult an earthling for a report on its orientation.

ion engine
The ion-propulsion engine is designed to speed up the spacecraft by 10,000 mph (16,000 km/h)  

The craft is designed to constantly take pictures of its heavenly surroundings and compare the pictures to maps stored in its computer memory.

If all goes well, Deep Space One will rendezvous with an asteroid in 2001. The spacecraft is also scheduled to fly by a burned out comet and an active comet.

If everything works as it should, NASA says its invention should be so self- sufficient and smart that it rarely needs to call Earth for help.

"It's like having your car find its own way from Washington to Los Angeles," Rayman said. (Audio 128 K/11 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Correspondent Rick Lockridge contributed to this report.

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