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Morpheus lander cruises through initial flight tests

Posted: January 23, 2014

With four legs, a methane-fueled rocket engine, bulbous propellant tanks and a coating of silver insulation, NASA's Morpheus prototype lander looks a vehicle built for space and not Earth's atmosphere.

Technicians prepare the Morpheus lander for a test flight at the Kennedy Space Center. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett
But it's being tested near sea level in Florida, where engineers have fashioned a field of rock hazards and craters mimicking a lunar landscape amid palm trees and alligator habitats.

The goal is to test out technologies that could be employed on future missions to land on the moon, Mars or visit asteroids. Although NASA has not identified a space mission to follow the Morpheus atmospheric tests, officials say the technologies could be put on a planetary or lunar lander by 2018.

But it's all a matter of funding, said Jon Olansen, Morpheus project manager from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

NASA could also partner with commercial companies seeking to build a moon lander, such as the firms competing for the Google Lunar X Prize, a $20 million award being sought by several corporate and university teams who are trying to be the first to put a privately-developed spacecraft on the moon.

The big technological advancements put to the test by the Morpheus project include a propulsion system fueled by liquid oxygen and methane, a non-toxic propellant mix that is easier to store for long durations in space than the more commonly-used hydrogen cryogenic fuel.

The lander will also be a test platform for high-tech lasers designed to map planetary surfaces to autonomously identify safe landing sites.

A similar system was used by China's Chang'e 3 lunar lander when it approached the moon in December, according to Chinese state media, which did not release any technical details.

The Morpheus lander has completed an initial round of short test hops near the Kennedy Space Center's former shuttle runway, giving the project's tight-knit team confidence to demand more from the spidery testbed.

A test flight on Tuesday lasted 64 seconds, flying 305 feet high and covering 358 feet of ground in 25 seconds before descending and landing on a rock-coverage concrete pad inside the hazard field. NASA officials say Morpheus landed within 15 inches of its target.

It was the fourth "free flight" by Morpheus since the lander arrived at KSC in November after initial tethered engine tests at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

NASA plans at least two more Morpheus hops before adding a suite of smart guidance sensors to the lander. The next two flights, scheduled for some time in February, will push the testbed's limits by flying farther and faster.

The goal is to wring out any problems with the Morpheus lander before adding the automated landing and hazard avoidance technology, or ALHAT, system to the vehicle.

The Morpheus lander in flight Tuesday at the Kennedy Space Center. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett
"We do that so that we don't put those sensors at risk while we're making sure the vehicle is flying the way we want it to fly," Olansen said. "Those sensors are actually more expensive than the vehicle itself."

Olansen said NASA has spent about $12.5 million on Morpheus over the last four years, covering the cost of building two flightworthy vehicles, the laser-guided navigation system, and a launch pad and landing field.

The money comes from NASA's advanced exploration systems program, according to Olansen.

Morpheus is on its second test campaign at KSC after a launch accident destroyed the first-generation lander in August 2012. Engineers traced the cause of the mishap to an interruption in signals from the lander's inertial measurement unit, a device the detects the vehicle's position and sends cues to the on-board computer, which commands the engine to correct errors in flight angle or orientation.

Olansen said the vibration at launch likely unseated a cable connection between the inertial measurement unit and the computer, halting the data flow between the two systems.

In one of several upgrades made to the Morpheus program since the 2012 mishap, engineers at KSC redesigned the vehicle's launch pad by adding a flame trench to direct flame and exhaust away from the lander. The change reduced the vibration during the launch sequence, officials said.

Greg Maddis, the Morpheus ground systems manager at Kennedy, said the redesigned launch pad is portable, allowing workers to reposition the pad at several different sites around the north end of the Shuttle Landing Facility.

After Tuesday's test flight, officials planned to move the launch pad to a new location farther from the hazard field to increase the distance of future Morpheus flights.

By April, Olansen said the Morpheus lander will be fitted with laser sensors designed to map the landing field and guide the vehicle to a safe touchdown zone away from rocks, slopes and craters.

Engineers will program the lander to fly toward an unsafe landing site in the rock field and rely on the craft's on-board hazard avoidance system to change the lander's course toward a suitable landing location, according to Olansen.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.