A spacecraft that is equipped with an ion engine and can think for itself rocketed away from Earth on Saturday on a quest to test technologies straight out of "Star Trek."
NASA's Deep Space 1 soared through clouds aboard an unmanned rocket, bound for an asteroid 120 million miles away.
The mood was tense as launch controllers awaited word as to whether Deep Space 1 was catapulted out of Earth orbit by the Delta booster as planned; the incoming data were unreadable. Then tracking stations were slow to acquire signals from the spacecraft, and engineers had to send commands to make sure the solar wings were unfurled.
The good news finally came two hours after liftoff: Deep Space 1 was on the right course and in good shape. Launch controllers applauded and hugged.
"We can start breathing again," said NASA launch manager Ray Lugo.
The successful 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.
Besides the ion-propulsion engine, Deep Space 1 is flying 11 other futuristic technologies, including a self-navigating system, powerful lens-covered solar wings, and a radio beacon designed to inform ground controllers how the spacecraft is doing without being asked.
"Deep Space 1 is taking the risks so that future missions don't have to," said Marc Rayman, chief engineer and deputy mission manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
Although ion engines have flown before, Deep Space 1 is the first deep-space probe to rely on such a device for primary propulsion. Ground controllers plan to fire up the engine in a few weeks, once they're sure everything is working.
The ion engine will provide the extra kick needed for the drum-shaped spacecraft, which weighs just over 1,000 pounds, to rendezvous with asteroid 1992 KD next July. It will travel an estimated 450 million miles before catching up with the moving, mountainsize rock.
The autonomous navigation system will guide Deep Space 1, managers hope, to within six miles of the asteroid. Artificial intelligence in this system will allow the spacecraft to take charge of some of its own commanding.
By MARCIA DUNN