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Deep Space probe passes cosmic road tests

ds one
Artist's rendering of Deep Space 1

Watch NASA's video of the Deep Space 1 rocket launch
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April 7, 1999
Web posted at: 3:48 p.m. EDT (1948 GMT)

(CNN) -- Deep Space 1, NASA's "spacecraft of the future," has successfully demonstrated several exotic new technologies, including a "Star Trek"-like ion thruster engine. Propelled by an eerie blue particle beam, the probe is sailing toward its next feat -- a rendezvous with asteroid 1992 KD.

The primary mission of Deep Space 1 is not to explore space, like other NASA probes, but rather to validate experimental equipment for use on future missions.

"We've taken these technologies around the test track, and now they're ready for the production line," said Dr. Marc Rayman, deputy mission manager and chief mission engineer for Deep Space 1.

Two of the advanced technologies successfully tested on Deep Space 1 have scientists particularly excited.

First is the ion propulsion system, which runs on xenon gas and requires only 1/10 the volume of fuel of conventional chemical rockets to achieve the same exhaust velocity. This makes the engine highly efficient on long missions, NASA officials said.

The October 24 liftoff   

Also new on the spacecraft is an autonomous navigation system, called AutoNav, that enables the probe to steer by the stars, pinpointing its own location in space.

"Deep Space 1 is the first spacecraft ever to have determined where it is in the vastness of the solar system," Rayman said.

Deep Space 1 will use AutoNav to fly by and photograph asteroid 1992 KD in July, attempting to find its way without active human control from Earth.

The only glitch in the spacecraft's operations so far came November 10, when the ion propulsion system was first activated. The engine shut itself off after 4 1/2 minutes, and engineers were unable to restart it later that day.

During the next attempt two weeks later, the engine started up easily and has performed flawlessly since then, logging more than 1,300 hours of operation.

Engineers believe the problem was caused by a piece of grit stuck to high-voltage grids within the ion engine. The grit was later dislodged, they believe, when parts expanded and contracted as the ion engine was exposed alternately to sunlight and shade.

Launched October 24, the $150 million Deep Space 1 is the first mission under NASA's New Millennium Program, which features flight testing of new technology, rather than science, as its main focus. These new technologies are intended to make spacecraft of the future smaller, cheaper, more reliable and more independent of human control, NASA said.

Correspondent Ann Kellan contributed to this report.

Probe heads for Mars with shovel, microphone
January 4, 1999
Deep Space probe's ion engine working smoothly, NASA says
December 7, 1998
Deep Space 1 soars
October 24, 1998

The New Millennium Program
Deep Space 1
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