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Futuristic NASA space probe to blast off Saturday

October 23, 1998
Web posted at: 5:08 PM EDT

(CNN) -- NASA made final preparations Friday for the launch of an experimental spacecraft that will test new technologies needed for the next generation of robotic solar system explorers.

The probe was due to blast off from Cape Canaveral atop a Boeing Delta 2 rocket at 8:01 a.m. EDT Saturday on a mission that will take it by an asteroid and two comets.

The $150 million spacecraft is designed to validate 12 new technologies for scientific space missions of the next century, according to NASA. The goal is to make spacecraft smaller, less expensive and more autonomous.

Among Deep Space 1's innovations: the unproven ion-propulsion engine and an unproven computerized navigator.

"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, probably the unmanned spacecraft's most important feature, 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.

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."

Technicians ready the Deep Space 1 probe at Kennedy Space Center  

Deep Space 1's computer pilot should always know where it is without having to consult an earthling for a report on its orientation.

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 1 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 will need to call Earth for help.

"It would be like having your car find its own way from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., arrive at a designated parking space, and do it all while getting 300 miles per gallon," Rayman said.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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