An experimental NASA lander took flight today for the last time at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center (KSA), successfully completing a quarter mile hop, testing technologies that future exploration missions might incorporate.
The four-legged Morpheus lander lit its engine at 4:11 pm and climbed about 800 feet, then flew forward 1,300 feet while descending to a pad in a simulated moonscape north of the shuttle runway, where it touched down in a cloud of dust. The Morpheus’ laser guided navigation system had controlled the entire flight, a key objective that was not achieved during several previous attempts. The 97 second flight was the last planned test flight before the Morpheus is shipped home next month to Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The Morpheus lander was developed by NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems division, not to fly in space but to demonstrate technologies that could support future human or robotic exploration. This 400 lb package of laser sensors and computers can scan a surface and identify disruptions in the surface that could pose a danger for the lander. The project arrived at the Kennedy Space Center in 2012, but suffered a crash and explosion which destroyed the first vehicle.
Morpheus is capable of carrying a humanoid robot or a rover and is being considered for a trip to the moon or an asteroid. What sets Morpheus apart is that no humans are sitting at a console to control its movements. After the button is pressed, Morpheus operates autonomously. Morpheus and the ALHAT (Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology) system could prove to be the basis for future unmanned landing crafts. A vehicle that can intelligently analyze the terrain and land safely under its own power would be hugely useful.