(Sen) - NASA will unveil the prototype of a remarkable new landing vehicle this week that is set to form the basis of new space probes to explore the Solar System.
Named Morpheus, the lander is designed to fly to a variety of destinations including Mars, planetary moons or asteroids. It will incorporate intelligent technology that allows it to register the presence of surface hazards such as boulders and avoid them.
It will also be powered by new "green" propulsion system that uses liquid oxygen and methane because these are fuels that could be readily produced on other worlds.
Another benefit of using methane is that it can be stored for longer in space than can other common rocket propellants. Methane also is cheaper and safer to operate and could be made from ice found on the moon or Mars.
NASA experts note that the International Space Station produces, and discards, enough methane waste gas each year to fill Morpheus's fuel tanks. Oxygen could be produced from moon dust.
As designed, Morpheus could carry a variety of payloads to the moon or other celestial bodies, such as Mars or asteroids. Named after the mythical Greek god of dreams, it is large enough to carry 1,100 lbs of cargo to the moon, such as a humanoid robot, a small rover, or a small laboratory that could convert the moondust into oxygen.
Dolores Petropulos, who has helped program the lander, said: "Morpheus is designed for autonomous flight or many different types of flight. It is portable and could be used to send a robotic or manned mission to a distant planet."
Morpheus, which has been undergoing regular testing for almost a year at NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, was transferred on Friday to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida where it will be shown off at a press call on Wednesday, August 1.
Video of a tethered test of Morpheus. Credit: NASA
The NASA-designed vehicle was manufactured and assembled at JSC and Armadillo Aerospace, and is the second vertical test bed built by the project team. The first, Pixel, was literally put together from spare parts supplied by the commercial company.
NASA converted the Pixel lander to use liquid oxygen and methane as its fuel, fitted it with instruments and carried out early guidance, navigation and control testing. Pixel was flown last year under tether 17 times and three free flights, at Armadillo’s facility near Dallas.
Staff at KSC have been busy for two months preparing a hazardous test field including craters and rocks for Morpheus at the end of the runway that was used by shuttles returning from space. It will tackle that after it has undergone further untethered flights at KSC.
Morpheus is one of around 20 small projects being developed under NASA's Advanced Exploration Systems program, including crewed vehicles, deep space habitats, operational systems and robotics.
The first tethered test flight - the twentieth since testing of the craft began - took place on August 3. Watch a video of the flight: