The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Morpheus Lander performed its ninth successful free flight test yesterday, March 11, 2014. The short flight took place at Kennedy Space Center located in Merritt Island, FL. This was the final test flight before the integration of Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology (ALHAT) on NASA’s Bravo vehicle.
According to Space.com the vehicle also set a new record for itself:
The flight lasted 83-seconds and it touched down on a landing pad 837 feet ‘downrange’ from the launchpad.
You can watch the launch below.
Project Morpheus is a NASA endeavor to develop and test a prototype planetary lander with vertical takeoff and landing capabilities. The lander runs on liquid oxygen and liquid methane. That keeps manufacturing and storage costs low. A large part of this project’s buzz is caused by its “‘lean development’ engineering practices.” Although the vehicle is rocket-powered, it’s highly reusable. Basically, NASA has been building a space vehicle on a very tight budget when compared to some of their more expensive projects like President John F. Kennedy’s Apollo program, which ran from 1961 to 1972 and cost NASA over USD $20 billion over its lifetime.
If that wasn’t interesting enough, Morpheus is at this stage totally devoid of human control. That’s right, FreeFlight, as NASA calls this testing phase, is exactly that – totally free flight operated by the onboard Morpheus computer and software. The lander lifts off from the launch pad and sets down on a safe platform all under its own guidance.
Part of putting man on another planet is landing and taking off safely. NASA has been testing this sort of safety programming for a while now, but it seems to have gotten it right with the automated ALHAT. Less human interference may mean less mistakes and less danger when the time comes to put a pod down on Mars. In the video above, you can see how Morpheus rises to survey its pitted and dangerous surroundings, then jets over to land softly on its target after the onboard software determines the safest place to put down.
Morpheus is Johnson Space Center’s (JSC) in-house project which means that it is being designed, developed, and manufactured by JSC engineers in Houston, TX.