NASA's Project Morpheus lander is moving one step closer to achieving autonomous flight and landing. After undergoing testing at Johnson Space Center in Houston for nearly a year, Morpheus arrived at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 27 to begin about three months of tests.
Dr. Jon Olansen is the Morpheus project manager at Johnson. He said a small, dedicated team in Houston completed substantial work to design, develop, integrate and test the Morpheus prototype lander.
"We completed the fundamental testing needed to characterize vehicle performance while tethered at JSC," Olansen said. "Now it's time to move on to the next phase of the project where we fly the vehicle autonomously in free flight."
Olansen said the testing at Kennedy will continually expand the flight envelope until they can fully simulate the final approach and landing phases of a planetary surface entry.
"We are excited to now have the vehicle at Kennedy, and look forward to working with the center's Morpheus team," Olansen said. "We'll hit the ground running."
On Aug. 3, the Morpheus test team will begin putting the lander through its paces at the specially created hazard field located at the north end of Kennedy's Shuttle Landing Facility. The hazard field, designed to mimic the surface of the moon, contains boulders, rocks, slopes and craters.
Greg Gaddis, NASA test director and Morpheus Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology (ALHAT) site manager at Kennedy, said it was difficult to turn the relatively flat, grassy area north of the landing facility into a crater-filled planetary scape for Morpheus to negotiate and land.
"But that's the kind of challenge that the Kennedy team thrives on," Gaddis said. "Our team is looking forward to facilitating successful testing this summer."
Gaddis said they will start with a tethered test near the north end of the runway to verify there were no issues with transport from Houston to Kennedy.
"After that, testing will take a completely different route," Gaddis said.
For Morpheus' first test, it will be suspended by crane 15 feet in the air and fly tethered for about 60 seconds. Morpheus' first free-flight test is planned for Aug. 6, following a successful tethered test, data review, and vehicle inspection.
Inside a mobile mission control center at the runway's midfield, Morpheus controllers will monitor the status of the vehicle systems prior to giving a "go." From the control center they can scrutinize performance during the fully autonomous test and can abort the exercise if necessary.
Beginning Aug. 6, Morpheus will begin free-flight tests and the data will be sent back to Houston. The lander will be moved increasingly further away from the portable launch pad and guided to its safe landing site autonomously.
After this series of free-flight tests that expand the operational envelope, the vehicle will be ready to integrate the components of the ALHAT project. Sensors will be used to scan the field for hazards and redirect Morpheus' landing to a safe location in the hazard field.
Chirold Epp, Johnson's project manager for ALHAT, said techniques were developed to image the surface and identify all rocks and holes with an elevation change of 30 centimeters or greater and slopes greater than five degrees. Using this information, the ALHAT software determines the safe sites for the vehicle to land.
"ALHAT has the capability to take a digital elevation map in real-time in order to determine where the hazards are and communicate that to the vehicle, "Epp said. "We're looking for accuracy. This technique is designed to help us get around the hazards."
There are some test restrictions, according to Olansen. Winds must be between three and 23 mph, largely based on crane operations for tethered tests. No rain, lightning or significant weather can be in the vicinity of the test site.
Epp said the next hope is that NASA has a planetary mission where the technology could be used.
Project Morpheus is one of 20 small projects in the NASA Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate's Advanced Exploration Systems program. These projects pioneer new approaches for rapidly developing prototype systems, demonstrating key capabilities and validating operational concepts for future human missions beyond Earth orbit.
For more information on Project Morpheus, visit: