Colorado Scientist Involved In Deep Space 1 Mission

October 19, 1998

A University of Colorado at Boulder professor is part of a science team working with a miniaturized, futuristic space probe capable of navigating its own way through space and powered by a solar-electric propulsion system.

The spacecraft, Deep Space 1, will attempt close flybys of an asteroid and possibly two comets, said CU-Boulder Associate Professor Fran Bagenal of the astrophysical and planetary sciences department. One of 15 science team members selected for the mission by NASA, Bagenal, with the help of Frank Crary, of CU's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, will analyze data collected on charged particles and magnetic fields surrounding the asteroid and comets.

Deep Space 1 is scheduled for launch Oct. 25 aboard a three-stage Delta rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla. Weighing only 1,000 pounds, the craft is packed with miniature instruments and devices designed to test 12 innovative technologies.

"The most exciting part of this mission to me is the ion-drive propulsion system," Bagenal said. "This is the first time it will be used for deep-space travel to propel a spacecraft out of the sun's gravity."

The propulsion system relies on the generation and bombardment of a chamber of xenon gas with hot, negatively charged electrons. The chamber is heated by solar energy that has been converted to electricity. As the electrons strike the xenon atoms, they knock off atom electrons, resulting in positively charged atoms, or ions.

The ions then are accelerated by an electric field to high speeds and expelled out the rear of the engine at about five miles per second, creating 3,000 tiny beams of thrust. Although the thrust is small -- increasing the speed of the craft by about 30 feet per second each day -- it eventually will propel the spacecraft to a speed of 8,000 miles per hour. The spacecraft will turn itself off periodically, allowing it to coast through space for weeks at a time.

"The ion-drive system would make being on Deep Space 1 like being in a car, rather than on the top of a rocket," she said. "It can drive around the solar system, changing its trajectory as it navigates using its computers and images of the stars taken by the on-board camera."

Because of the weight problem in lofting missions to the outer solar system, "we squeezed all the instrumentation way down," she said. "But if it works, we will move into a new era of space flight, going to a lot of new places more swiftly and easily."

Two primary instruments on board the craft are a camera and a particle detector, said Bagenal. The camera, which can take images in the visible, ultraviolet and infrared spectrums, weighs about 28 pounds -- or about six times less than the camera currently on the way to Saturn aboard NASA's Cassini mission. Deep Space 1 is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

The particle detector, weighing less than seven pounds, is about four times lighter than the particle detector aboard Cassini, she said. "Both of these instruments are small, light and have high performance capabilities."

Bagenal, who also has worked as a mission scientist on NASA's Voyager and Galileo missions with charged particles and magnetic fields, is particularly interested in the effect of the solar wind. The solar wind is believed to knock atoms off asteroids and comets in a process known as "sputtering," possibly ionizing them in the process.

The Deep Space 1 encounter with Asteroid 1992KD is expected to occur in July 1999, perhaps passing as close as three miles, she said. If all goes well, the craft is then expected to fly close by a burned out comet and an active comet. With the orbits of 250 asteroids and 250,000 stars stored in its computer memory, the craft can execute trajectory changes without the need for commands from Earth.

"This is a check-out mission to test new technology," said Bagenal. "There is no point in sending such radical technology into the outer solar system until we try it out and see if it succeeds in the inner solar system."

Bagenal said she is fairly optimistic the spacecraft will work. "We need to learn from these cheaper, faster test missions so we can move on to doing important science in other areas of space."
-end-


University of Colorado at Boulder

Related Solar System Articles from Brightsurf:

Ultraviolet shines light on origins of the solar system
In the search to discover the origins of our solar system, an international team of researchers, including planetary scientist and cosmochemist James Lyons of Arizona State University, has compared the composition of the sun to the composition of the most ancient materials that formed in our solar system: refractory inclusions in unmetamorphosed meteorites.

Second alignment plane of solar system discovered
A study of comet motions indicates that the Solar System has a second alignment plane.

Pressure runs high at edge of solar system
Out at the boundary of our solar system, pressure runs high.

What a dying star's ashes tell us about the birth of our solar system
A UA-led team of researchers discovered a dust grain forged in a stellar explosion before our solar system was born.

What scientists found after sifting through dust in the solar system
Two recent studies report discoveries of dust rings in the inner solar system: a dust ring at Mercury's orbit, and a group of never-before-detected asteroids co-orbiting with Venus, supplying the dust in Venus' orbit.

Discovered: The most-distant solar system object ever observed
A team of astronomers has discovered the most-distant body ever observed in our solar system.

Discovery of the first body in the Solar System with an extrasolar origin
Asteroid 2015 BZ509 is the very first object in the Solar System shown to have an extrasolar origin.

First interstellar immigrant discovered in the solar system
A new study has discovered the first known permanent immigrant to our solar system.

A star disturbed the comets of the solar system in prehistory
About 70,000 years ago, when the human species was already on Earth, a small reddish star approached our solar system and gravitationally disturbed comets and asteroids.

Scientists detect comets outside our solar system
Scientists from MIT and other institutions, working closely with amateur astronomers, have spotted the dusty tails of six exocomets -- comets outside our solar system -- orbiting a faint star 800 light years from Earth.

Read More: Solar System News and Solar System Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.