By Linda Herridge
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center
NASA’s Project Morpheus prototype lander arrived at Kennedy Space Center on Nov. 21 and was transported to a support building at the Shuttle Landing Facility to be prepared for tethered and free-flight testing. The lander is a test bed to demonstrate new green propellant propulsion systems and autonomous landing and hazard detection technology, which could enable new capabilities for future human exploration of the solar system.
Nearly six months of Morpheus tethered tests were accomplished at the Vertical Testbed Flight Complex near NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston before the lander was packed and shipped to Kennedy.
“All of the testing we accomplished at JSC was preparing us for the free-flight tests at Kennedy,” said Jon Olansen, the Morpheus project manager at Johnson.
During its final test at Johnson, Morpheus was launched over a flame trench, ascended to a height of 21 feet, and flew a course that landed the vehicle on a separate pad 10 feet from its launch point. The vehicle remained loosely tethered, which provided the necessary range safety at the center, but limited flight distances.
Olansen said the Johnson tests helped the team understand how the vehicle performs and how to fine tune it. Testing also demonstrated the capability of a number of Morpheus' backup systems.
Now, Morpheus will be tested at the north end of the Kennedy landing facility, where a realistic crater-filled planetary scape awaits. The 100-square-meter field, called the Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology (ALHAT) Hazard Field, contains rocks and other hidden hazards designed to mimic as closely as possible the landing conditions on surfaces such as the moon or Mars.
Greg Gaddis, the Kennedy Morpheus and ALHAT site manager said an in-field checkout of Morpheus’ communication and safety systems will be completed Dec. 3 to confirm they are functioning properly. On Dec. 4, Morpheus will be loaded with propellant, liquid oxygen and liquid methane, to verify the systems are working.
“During the first flight campaign, the team will conduct dry run operations to wring out any Kennedy-specific challenges to support Morpheus testing,” Gaddis said.
Morpheus’ first tether test will take place Dec. 6 at the launch pad constructed at the north end of the landing facility, just south of the hazard field. The tethered lander will be raised 20 feet high to minimize risk to the vehicle while a checkout flight is conducted to ensure it performs as expected after being shipped across the country. The vehicle will ascend 10 feet, move across 10 feet, then return to center and “land” at the bottom of the tether.
On Dec. 10, the first of three autonomous free-flight tests is planned. Morpheus will be loaded with propellants, lift off from a recently constructed transportable pad containing a flame trench, hover at about 50 feet in altitude, then move over and land on the second pad, a little more than 23 feet away.
“Over the next few months, we will continually expand Morpheus’ flight envelope with a goal of reaching over 800 feet in altitude and moving more than 1,500 feet downrange,” Olansen said.
The Morpheus lander eventually will incorporate ALHAT, a technology that will allow it to navigate to clear landing sites amidst rocks, craters and other hazards during its descent.
Morpheus is being managed under the Advanced Exploration Systems Division in NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. The efforts in the Advanced Exploration Systems 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 about Morpheus, visit: