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Deep Space 1 soars

NASA launches Deep Space 1
NASA launches Deep Space 1  
October 24, 1998
Web posted at: 9:00 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (CNN) -- NASA's Deep Space 1 spacecraft, powered with a futuristic engine, successfully lifted off Saturday, just eight minutes behind schedule.

Beating incoming rain showers at the Cape Canaveral launch site, the $150 million spacecraft pulled away from the launch pad at 8:08 a.m. (1208 GMT) for a mission that will test an unproven ion-propulsion engine.

Deep Space 1 blasted off through the clouds aboard an unmanned Boeing Delta II rocket, bound for an asteroid 120 million miles away. That rendezvous is expected in 2001.

The morning launch kicked off NASA's New Millennium program of "high risk, high payoff" technology missions that the space agency hopes will lead to frequent, affordable trips into space.

"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."

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.

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.

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