(Sen) - NASA's prototype planetary lander, Morpheus, suffered a catastrophic failure during its first untethered flight test at the agency's Kennedy Space Center (KSC). The crash happened just days after NASA's amazing feat of using a sky crane to land the biggest ever rover, Curiosity, on Mars. Like Curiosity, Morpheus was using complex new technology. Fortunately in Morpheus's case this was only a test, and NASA were keen to emphasise that this type of failure could be expected when developing complex new hardware.
During the test Morpheus lifted off the ground for a few seconds before crashing down to earth and catching fire. No one was injured and the fire was extinguished by staff at KSC. NASA reported that engineers were analysing the data to establish the root cause of the accident. A NASA statement read:
"Failures such as these were anticipated prior to the test and are part of the development process for any complex spaceflight hardware. What we learn from these tests will help us build the best possible system in the future."
Morpheus is a testbed for new technology and is being developed into a vehicle that could be used to land on planetary bodies such asteroids, the Moon and Mars. The lander could be used for robotic or manned missions.
The vehicle is powered by a new propulsion system that uses liquid oxygen and methane - fuels that could be generated from ice found on the Moon and Mars. Oxygen could also be produced from moon dust. An additional benefit of using methane is that it can be stored in space for longer periods than traditional rocket propellant.
Morpheus was built at NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas and at Armadillo Aerospace. After nearly a year of testing at JSC, when it has been suspended from a crane during flight, it was moved to KSC in July to progress with its test program.
The first tethered test flight at KSC - the twentieth since testing of the spacecraft began - took place on August 3. The Morpheus team then proceeded with its first free flight on August 9 which resulted in the crash.
As reported by Sen in April, the Space Shuttle's landing strip at KSC has been transformed with rocks and craters to re-create the type of landscape it will encounter once in production. After a series of free flights (untethered), Morpheus will try flying and landing on the extraterrestrial landscape 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.