NASA’s Morpheus prototype planetary lander soared to 187 feet during a 57-second free flight test at the Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 16 – evidence the second test vehicle in the series is reaching new milestones in a bid to place future human as well as robotic explorers on a range of planetary surfaces.
The Alpha lander was destroyed Aug. 9, 2012 in a fiery crash at the test site near Kennedy’s Shuttle Landing Facility, sending the Morpheus team back to its Johnson Space Center headquarters in Houston to investigate and rise again.
The Jan. 16 lift off marked the third free flight for the Bravo lander, which returned to Kennedy in late November with 70 upgrades including a redundant inertial measurement unit. It was greeted with a new launch site flame trench as well. Together, the second IMU and blast trench were to overcome the loss of guidance data and a buildup of destructive vibro acoustic forces blamed for the 2012 crash.
So why Morpheus? The prototype is the focus of efforts to develop a NASA planetary lander that could touchdown on a range of planetary bodies, from the moon to Mars, with the precision required to reach sites of the highest scientific and exploratory value.
As the flight testing at Kennedy moves ahead early this year, the Morpheus team plans to introduce the Autonomous Landing Hazard Avoidance Technology package to the Morpheus test flights. ALHAT is comprised of a Doppler lidar; a three-direction velocimeter tuned to an accuracy of a few centimeters per second; and a flash lidar gimbaled to sweep the landing target for obstructions like boulders and craters.
On a future mission, an unpiloted lander with ALHAT derived sensors would have an aim point, or target, as well as the ability to make adjustments to dodge previously undetected hazards. Morpheus itself is propelled with methane, a “green” fuel that can be stored in space with more ease than traditional chemical propellants.
The Morpheus team intends to expand the flight envelope at Kennedy gradually before the ALHAT introduction. The goal is to achieve more than 100 seconds of flight, altitudes approaching 1,000 feet and distances of 1,600 feet.
The project is supervised by NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Directorate as a lean development initiative.