Early Aug. 6, 's Curiosity rover—the centerpiece of a $2.5 billion flagship mission—raced across the Martian sky, undergoing a half-dozen rapid-fire changes in configuration before an untried “Sky Crane” landing system paused just above the terrain to lower the one-metric-ton robot geologist to the surface.
Three days later, Morpheus, an unpilotedprototype for a multimission planetary lander, crashed moments after lifting off from a simulated lunar landscape at the . (Morpheus is seen above during a March 13 tether test.)
At the NASA(JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., Curiosity's control team received well-deserved praise from President Barack Obama following the rover's breathtaking arrival. Pop culture exploded with new personalities, including the Mohawk scientist, from JPL's boisterous but failure-weary control room.
In Florida, the Morpheus team stepped back from their charred wreckage. In relative obscurity, they vowed to regroup at theirbase in Texas, assemble a replacement and return to Florida to finish their work: an ambitious pairing of Morpheus with the equally cutting-edge Autonomous Landing and Hazardous Avoidance Technology (Alhat).
As envisioned, Morpheus, working in concert with the light-detection and ranging-based Alhat, could autonomously steer a payload more massive than Curiosity to an alien terrain by skimming along at low altitude, dodging boulders and crater rims as it navigates its own course to a propulsive touchdown within a few meters of its target.
Cost so far? $7 million over 2.5 years.
White House “attaboys” and new cult personalities? None, yet.
But let's look ahead, as Obama did when he addressed the JPL team: “Our expectation is that Curiosity is going to be telling us things we did not know before and laying the groundwork for an even more audacious undertaking in the future and that is a human mission to the red planet.”
If humanity is truly outbound, it will likely take bold steps derived as much from the incremental advances pioneered by Morpheus and other modestly funded test programs as Curiosity's “Sky Crane.” In concert, they will usher the first human explorers to the doorstep of carefully selected Martian landing sites and quite likely other alien destinations along the way.
“Morpheus is currently not configured for a specific mission, so the landing approach is not directly comparable,” notes Jon Olansen, its NASA project manager. “However, the concept of an approach using Alhat components would enable identification and targeting of sufficiently safe landing sites within an area that currently would be considered too hazardous to be accessible.”
So, while Curiosity touched down an impressive 2.4 km (1.5 mi.) from its target, the rover is weeks from reaching the base of Mount Sharp, the hoped-for reservoir of information about the planet's environmental past.
Morpheus and Alhat would place explorers just footsteps away, in essence.
So, what's available to nurture the next steps?
NASA's flat (or worse) budget outlook, a matter under review by the agency's Mars Program Planning Group, reflects a much-publicized decreasing planetary science line. Mars spending drops from $587 million this year to $360 million in fiscal 2013 and less for at least three notional budget cycles beyond.
Morpheus, meanwhile, is one of 20 Advanced Exploration Systems projects nested within NASA's Human Exploration Operations Directorate. AES spending doubled to $142 million for fiscal 2012. But it awaits a less-publicized decrease to $109 million annually for the foreseeable future.
“Given our philosophy, we try to test early and often, learn from tests rather than try to do everything through analysis and reach the point where each test is so expensive you cannot fail,” explains Olansen. “In order to do that, you have to be lean and hardware-rich.”
The 40-member Morpheus team, drawn largely from NASA's shuttle, space station and Constellation ranks, intends to assemble a second lander from spare components largely in hand.
Early data from the crash investigation points to the loss of inertial measurement unit (IMU) data within the first second of flight. A NASA video shows Morpheus rising, minus the Alhat avionics, rolling quickly as if blind, then plummeting to the ground 8 sec. later.
The same IMU functioned reliably on all 27 previous test flights, most of them conducted at Johnson, with Morpheus suspended from a construction crane by a restrictive tether.
That's where flight testing is slated to pick up again late this year.
But if Morpheus has a shot at a Curiosity moment, it will start at Kennedy, with the lander rising 500 meters (1,600 ft.) about a kilometer from the center of the lunarscape and flying to an Alhat- guided touchdown.
“It will just be a matter of timing before we can do that,” predicts Olansen.
And, of course, funding.