NASA's Kennedy Space Center is preparing to turn its runway into a planetary landscape for tests of a new lander being developed by NASA.
The lander, called Morpheus, is being used to demonstrate new green propellant propulsion systems and autonomous landing and hazard detection technology.
The lander has been designed in-house by NASA and built at NASA's Johnson Space Center and Armadillo Aerospace.
The primary focus of Morpheus is to demonstrate an integrated propulsion and guidance, navigation and control system that can fly a lunar descent profile to exercise the Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology (ALHAT) safe landing sensors and closed-loop flight control.
Morpheus' technologies are being developed to create a spacecraft that can land on the Moon, Mars or other planetary surface.
Originally called Project M, Morpheus was born out of the cancellation of the U.S.’s Constellation programme which had planned to return astronauts to the Moon. In its original guise, Project M was part of an ambitious plan to send a robotic astronaut, or Robonaut, to the Moon in under 1,000 days.
The Constellation programmed was cancelled by President Obama and Project M was transformed into Project Morpheus. The Robonaut that had been part of Project M was taken to the International Space Station in February 2011 aboard one of the final Shuttle flights, STS-133.
The Morpheus craft has spent the last year undergoing tests of its rocket engines at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Morpheus prepares for tests at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Credit: NASA
During these tests, the lander was firmly tethered to the ground but Morpheus is now ready for its first free flight. For this next round of testing, the prototype will travel to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the site of the Shuttle Landing facility.
During its test flights, Morpheus will rise 30 metres into the air, fly 30 metres horizontally and then land.
However, the craft is designed to land on the Moon, asteroids and Mars where flat expanses of tarmac are in short supply. So, once the craft has performed several of free flight tests successfully, it will then move on to its next challenge – a kilometre-long simulated surface approach.
To recreate the sort of rocky terrain that the lander will have to cope with, the runway at Kennedy Space Center will undergo a radical makeover.
The Space Shuttle Landing Facility's runway at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Credit: NASA
For decades, the 4.5km-long landing strip has been kept obsessively clear of any debris that could pose a danger to a landing Space Shuttle. But to test Morpheus’ automated landing and hazard avoidance system engineers are going to have to create a lunar landscape – complete with rocks, craters and other hazards.
Morpheus is designed to carry payloads of up 500 kg and will be almost entirely autonomous – capable of making the trip from Earth to the Moon, including the final descent and landing, without a pilot and without guidance from Earth.
The craft can even boast green credentials. Instead of using liquid hydrogen as a propellant, it uses methane - which is safer, cheaper and could be manufactured from ice on the Moon or Mars (if that fails, the International Space Station dumps about half a tonne of waste methane into space every year).
Although the first round of Morpheus tests at the Kennedy Space Center has yet to be scheduled, it could take place as early as June, with the full series of tests due to finish by the end of September.