The Future Of Space Travel

God bless John Glenn and all of the publicity he's getting. He deserves it. But, the biggest news in space this week may be Deep Space 1. That's the new and possibly breakthrough spacecraft NASA has just launched.

This thing is driven by ion propulsion. And it has a self-navigating system that, in effect, has the spacecraft thinking for itself.

If it works, it could open the door to frequent, affordable trips into space - for humans and robots.

The ion engine is the key. Definition of an ion: an atom or group of atoms that has acquired an electric charge by gaining or losing electrons from an initially electrically neutral configuration. Ion propulsion is propulsion by the reactive thrust of a high-speed beam of similarly charged ions ejected by an ion machine.

Deep Space 1 carries only l80 pounds of xenon gas to run the engine. In the ion engine, xenon gas is bombarded by electrons. The xenon ions that result go towards high-voltage grids. That produces propulsion for many months, even years.

Deep Space 1 is bound for an asteroid l20 million miles away. If all goes well, it will catch up with the asteroid next July. Artificial intelligence in the spacecraft's system will have the craft doing some of its own commanding.

Deep Space 2, scheduled for lift off in January, will send two soil-penetrating probes off of the Mars Polar Lander to explore the red planet's south pole.

Amazing, potentially history-making stuff, all of this. And, with all due respect to John Glenn, Deep Space I is where the news is this week.

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