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Ion Propulsion Becomes Reality

If all goes well, a robot craft aboard a rocket will rendezvous with an asteroid next July, swooping close to its surface. But more astounding than where it's going is how it's getting there, reports CBS News Correspondent Bill Whitaker.

For the first time in deep space, NASA is using an inexpensive, space age ion propulsion system. No fiery red rockets, but just a glowing, blue particle beam.

"Back in the late 60's, there was actually a Star Trek episode where they referred to an ion propulsion system," recalls Ralph Basilio of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Ions are electrically charged particles. In this case, charged particles of xenon, the gas used in flash bulbs. The particles are spewed out the back creating an almost imperceptible thrust that builds to tremendous speed over time. It is one of a dozen untried technologies on Deep Space 1 that NASA hopes one day will make space treks easier and cheaper.

"You'll be able to develop lighter weight spacecrafts in the future, less expensive to use and operate," says Basilio.

Space exploration on a shoestring. That, under the microscope, is one of the next missions to Mars. It's called Deep Space 2, with an estimated cost of $29 million, which is extremely cheap by NASA standards. The two robot-probes will search for water in Martian soil.

NASA's goal these days is to be faster, better, and cheaper. And for this mission it should add smaller. This is the smallest system ever launched by NASA. The whole thing is about the size of a large grapefruit. And this cylinder, no bigger than a salt shaker, houses the brain, the power, and all the scientific instruments.

To save money, the probes will hitchhike on another Mars-bound craft, then crash to the surface at more than 400 miles-per-hour, saving money on re-entry rockets. But can it work?

"Absolutely," says Project Manager Sarah Gavit.

Gavit is one of three women heading up Deep Space 2-the first group of women ever to run a NASA mission. They tested their system by firing the tiny probes out of a cannon-like contraption, and they survived.

"By crashing into the surface of the planet, we will be demonstrating not only a new entry system design, but a means for penetrating the surface of Mars," says Gavit.

NASA hopes eventually to place a lot of little probes on Mars to monitor its climate and seismic activity. The agency insists scaling down on costs doesn't mean scaling back on dreams. It still plans to shoot for the stars, but to just keep the spending down to earth.

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