In July of 2010, engineers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center began work on the Morpheus lander with a goal of testing new technologies which would be required for a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) vehicle intended to land on the moon, an asteroid or even Mars.
Key elements of the Morpheus teams “lean development”, which calls for starting small, building fast, and saving money by leveraging resources already in existence, include an engine fueled by “green” non-toxic propellants and an automated system for avoiding obstacles on whatever surface the vehicle might be landing on.
In the case of the Morpheus lander, the green propellants are liquid oxygen and methane (LOX/methane). A safer alternative to traditional spacecraft fuels, LOX/methane is not only 10 to 20 times less expensive, but also lighter. The weight of the fuel becomes very important when every pound of weight carried into space requires an additional 15 pounds of fuel to get it there!
In addition to the benefits of an engine which runs reliably on propellants that are cheaper and safer here on Earth, LOX/methane could also potentially be manufactured on the Moon or even Mars. Engineers with NASA’s In-Situ Resource Utilization program are already testing methods of extracting oxygen from lunar dust, and methane exists in the Martian atmosphere.
The liquid oxygen/liquid methane engine, developed by aerospace start-up Armadillo Aerospace with help from NASA through an Innovative Partnership Program agreement, was tested in the vacuum chamber at NASA’s White Sands Test Facility. (Image Credit: NASA)
However, before a lander can take advantage of those resources, it has to get to the ground ….safely! This is where the Automated Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology (ALHAT) comes in. No matter what surface a spacecraft is landing on, it will need to be able to dodge craters, boulders and any other obstacle that it finds there. (During the Apollo 11 lunar landing, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin almost used up their fuel trying to find a safe place to land. And this was a carefully chosen landing site!)
NASA intends to be more nimble in its future exploration, and wants to be able to land anywhere. ALHAT will be able to take laser images of the surface of a planet or asteroid as it flies over and descends, defining hazards in real time on spots where the lander will be touching down within five seconds.
On Wednesday, March 5th, the multi-center Morpheus Team successfully completed Free Flight8 (FF8) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Shuttle Landing Facility, marking the 6th free flight of the Bravo vehicle.
Ok…that’s just cool! The video shows the vehicle flying to 467 feet altitude, and then traversing 637 feet in 36 seconds, including diverting course mid-flight, before landing in the hazard field 56 feet from its original target (simulating hazard avoidance). Initial data indicates a nominal flight meeting all test objectives. The vehicle flew its pre-planned trajectory flawlessly, and landed approximately 10in from its intended target 79 seconds after launch.
Well done, Morpheus team!