Masten Space Systems has successfully test-flown its Xombie space-access technology demonstrator to a height of more than 1,600 feet (greater than the Empire State Building) and showcased its ability to guide itself laterally to a precision landing on an adjacent pad, nearly 1,000 feet away. On 25 March, the alien-like craft rose from Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, Calif., flying for 80 seconds, before touching down without incident. This marked the highest and longest flight of the vehicle to date. Xombie carries exciting possibilities for future landings on the Moon and Mars and also served to evaluate new guidance, navigation and control hardware.
For several years, Masten – a Mojave, Calif.-based company which is developing suborbital and orbital spacecraft with a capacity to execute vertical takeoffs and landings – has made impressive progress on its stated goals. On 7 October 2009, it won the $150,000 second prize in the Level 1 competition for the NASA/Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge X-Prize by precisely landing its Xombie Model XA-0.1B with an average accuracy of just 6.3 inches. A few weeks later, on 30 October, its Xoie Model XA-0.1E went on to win the $1 million first prize, beating rival Armadillo Aerospace by 24 inches of total landing accuracy, achieving an average of 7.5 inches.
Since then, Masten has developed and flown its Xaero design, which completed 110 test missions before its destruction in September 2012, when an engine valve stuck open during descent and triggered the automatic flight-termination system. However, the company quickly rebounded from this failure. Last December, it successfully fired its 2,800-pound-thrust Katana KA6A regeneratively-cooled engine and the recent Xombie test adds to Masten’s tally by logging the highest and longest mission to date.
Video courtesy of Masten Space Systems
Furthermore, it evaluated Charles Stark Draper Laboratory’s Guidance Embedded Navigator Integration Environment (GENIE) system, which is designed to land a vehicle on other celestial bodies, including the Moon and Mars. This system was developed under NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program and on 25 March enabled engineers to replicate how it might respond during a landing approach, using realistic instruments and real-world flight data, without leaving Earth. GENIE guided Xombie to a peak altitude of 1,626 feet (nearly 500 meters), then transferred it 984 feet (300 meters) laterally, to a perfect landing.
“Two hundred meters above the Martian or lunar surface is not the place you want to be using an innovative new sensor or landing algorithm for the first time,” said Christopher Baker of the Flight Opportunities Program at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. “We are working to create an environment that provides opportunities to test these systems a little closer to home.” Ultimately, Masten hopes to conduct these flights from altitudes as high as several miles, and its next-generation Xeus concept will reportedly be capable of delivering up to 14 tons of payload to the lunar surface.