NASA engineers at Stennis Space Center recently conducted tests on a new liquid methane, liquid oxygen engine used to power the Project Morpheus lander, which could one day carry cargo to the moon, asteroids or Mars.
The tests on Stennis' E-3 Test Stand mark the first time the Morpheus engine has been tested on its own. Previous tests were conducted with the engine installed on the Morpheus lander itself. The test series involved more than two dozen tests of the engine controller and thrust chamber over a (3-5 day) period.
During the tests, engineers gathered performance data on the new engine, which provides greater thrust for the Morpheus lander, allowing it to carry heavier payloads. NASA has designed the lander using advanced technologies, including a "green" propulsion system, and autonomous landing and hazard detection features.
Use of methane as a "green" propellant is of particular interest since it can be stored for longer times in space compared to other common rocket propellants. Methane also is cheaper and safer to operate and actually could be made from ice found on the moon or Mars. In fact, the International Space Station produces – and dumps – enough methane waste gas each year to fill the Morpheus fuel tanks.
As designed, Morpheus could carry a variety of payloads to the moon or other celestial bodies, such as Mars or asteroids. The payloads could include robots, small rovers or even small laboratories to run automated tests.
"Our test stand was set up perfectly for this series," said Craig Chandler, test director for the project. "It's also very exciting to be part of the Morpheus effort, which is a great project to work on for future missions. This test series means we get to participate in that important work."
The series also could open the door to additional testing later this year, Chandler said. NASA engineer Gary Taylor is serving a program director for the testing. Engineer Andy Guymon is test conductor.
Morpheus is one of 20 small projects comprising NASA's Advanced Exploration Systems Program. AES projects pioneer new approaches for rapidly developing prototype systems, demonstrating key capabilities and validating operational concepts for future human missions beyond Earth orbit.
The lander has been undergoing tether tests at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. Free flight testing is scheduled this year at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.