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A View from Brittany Sauser

See NASA's New Lunar Lander in Flight

Project Morpheus is testing a greener propellant, and hazard detection technology.

  • May 6, 2011

Project Morpheus is making subtle, but noisy, progress at NASA. The experimental spacecraft is designed to carry cargo to the moon, an asteroid, or Mars, but the model shown here will never actually land on such surfaces. It is being used to test new technologies, such as propulsion, guidance, navigation, and control systems, and optical sensors that would allow for a safe descent and landing.

Second test firing of Morpheus engine. Credit: Joe Bibby

Morpheus recently conducted its first tethered flights at Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston (see the video below) and will be taking its first untethered flight this month, making it the first prototype spacecraft to fly at JSC since before man walked on the moon.

Morpheus is also testing a new, greener propellant, liquid oxygen and methane. The mixture is cheaper, lighter, and safer than than traditional spacecraft fuels. It can also be stored for longer periods of time in space, and the methane could perhaps even be made from ice on the moon or Mars.

The vehicle is also focused on testing safer landing technologies, specifically a system developed by NASA to detect hazards like craters or slopes in real-time. The system, called the Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology, uses beams of light and optical sensors to profile a landing surface.

But the project, designed and developed in less than a year, is more than a technology demonstration, it’ also a cultural shift for NASA. It’s a hands-on testing approach: get the technology developed quickly and efficiently and use failures to drive improvement. “Projects like Morpheus are invigorating and infectious,” said Steve Altemus, director of Johnson’s Engineering Directorate, in the NASA press release. “And they help us find better and cheaper ways to do things. To challenge our existing processes. To innovate.”

At a time when NASA’s future is filled with lots of questions and uncertainties, innovations with a clear purpose are exactly what the agency needs.

The burn zone around the pad after the second set of engine firings. Credit: Kris Kehe

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