After sticking to the ground for upgrades the past several months, the Project Morpheus prototype lander took to the skies at Johnson Space Center again on Tuesday.
Since its last round of tests in 2011, the Morpheus team has given the liquid oxygen/liquid methane-fueled lander a new engine, new avionics and a power unit redesign. In addition, the vehicle software has been substantially updated in preparation for the integration of its Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology (ALHAT) payload. The lander has the same oxygen and methane tanks, and the same structure, but otherwise it's practically an all-new vehicle.
"The first series of tests gave us a basic understanding of our ability to control the vehicle and allowed us to initially characterize the performance of the subsystems on the vehicle," Morpheus Project Manager Jon Olansen said. "With that information we were able to go back and design in upgrades to improve performance and reliability."
Once the upgrades were complete, it was time to start up a new series of tests. Like last time, they started with hot fire tests to demonstrate engine operation, and this week worked up to tethered testing. On Tuesday, the refitted lander successfully hovered 15 feet above the ground for 40 seconds, firing the engine for a total of 50 seconds with ignition, ascent and descent.
From here on out, the team members expect to average one to two tests per week in this series, depending on the data they get from each test and, of course, the weather. After they're certain they have a good understanding of the vehicle's dynamics and control, the Morpheus lander will graduate from tethered flight to free flight – in which the lander will rise 100 feet into the air, fly 100 feet to the west and land safely.
But between now and then, there are many things to test. Tuesday's test was primarily aimed at demonstrating a successful hover (which it did). As testing proceeds, the team will also want to demonstrate the performance of particular systems, including its safety systems, such as abort and engine cutoff capability.
"We have a number of different objectives to meet with this series of tests," Olansen said. "We're trying to understand the edges of the box of control with the vehicle."
The Project Morpheus tests do not follow a set pattern and can be delayed, but you can keep up with the latest news via the Project Morpheus Facebook account: http://www.facebook.com/morpheuslander or Twitter account: http://www.twitter.com/morpheuslander.
Project Morpheus is part of the Advanced Exploration Systems program.