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Look Out for Those Rocks!
April 1, 2012

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The words "hazard field" certainly never were associated with the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. To the contrary, the goal was to keep the runway area free of any hazards that might endanger the shuttle and crew during landing. But that is about to change when, in the not-too-distant future, the facility will offer a prototype space vehicle the kind of landing hazard field necessary for realistic testing.

› Watch the simulated surface approach animation

An area near the runway will be turned into a field of hazards as part of the next phase of tests for the Project Morpheus lander, which integrates technologies that someday could be used to build future spacecraft destined for asteroids, Mars or the moon. The lander has been undergoing testing at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston for almost a year in preparation for its first free flight. During that flight testing, it will rise almost 100 feet into the air, fly 100 feet laterally, and then land safely.

Once the lander has successfully completed a planned series of these free flight tests, the team will move on to its next challenge - flying a kilometer-long simulated surface approach while avoiding hazards in a landing field. Morpheus integrates an autonomous landing and hazard avoidance technology (ALHAT) payload that will allow it to navigate to clear landing sites amidst rocks, craters and other hazards during its descent, and land safely.

But to put that capability to the test, Morpheus needs rocks, craters and hazards to avoid - and that's where the Kennedy landing facility comes in. After evaluating several potential testing sites, project managers at Johnson determined that, with the addition of some hazards, Kennedy's former shuttle landing facility would be the best choice.

"Kennedy Space Center offers the perfect combination of capabilities," said Dr. Jon Olansen, Morpheus project manager at Johnson, "range and airspace availability, hangar facilities, propellant handling capabilities - and an open and often available runway near which we can build a hazard field completes the package."

"It will be difficult to turn the relatively flat, grassy area north of the runway into a crater-filled planetary scape for Morpheus to negotiate and land in, but that's the kind of challenge that the Kennedy team thrives on," said Greg Gaddis, Kennedy's Morpheus test site manager. "Our team is looking forward to facilitating successful testing this summer."

The up-coming test represents a new milestone for Project Morpheus, one of 20 small projects comprising the Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) program in NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. AES projects pioneer new approaches for rapidly developing prototype systems, demonstrating key capabilities and validating operational concepts for future human missions beyond Earth orbit.

Although the first test at Kennedy has not been scheduled, it could take place as early as June, with the series scheduled to wrap up by Sept. 30. The testing schedule is dynamic and changes as the vehicle and weather dictate. The public can follow the tests on the Morpheus Facebook and Twitter. For more information about Project Morpheus and videos of past tests, visit the project's home page.

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The runway at Kennedy's Shuttle Landing Facility is longer and wider than most commercial runways - 15,000 feet long, with 1,000-foot paved overruns on each end, and 300 feet wide, with 50-foot asphalt shoulders.
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NASA/KSC
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Steam billows around the Project Morpheus lander as its plumbing is filled with liquid nitrogen for a cold flow test on March 17, 2011, at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.
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NASA/JSC
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The Project Morpheus lander fires its liquid oxygen- and methane-fueled engine for a tethered test on May 4, 2011, at the Johnson Space Center. With the vehicle suspended from a crane, the tethered tests allowed engineers to test their control of the vehicle with little risk of damage to the lander.
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Page Last Updated: August 6th, 2013
Page Editor: NASA Administrator