Morpheus Rising: NASA's Prototype Lander Vehicle Soars in Recent Free-Flight Tests

The Morpheus Lander successfully completed its first of two successful free flight tests within a week, on December 10. Image Credit: NASA/Johnson Space Center

The Morpheus Lander successfully completed its first of two successful free flight tests within a week, on Dec. 10. Image Credit: NASA/Johnson Space Center

In what looked like scenes from a retro science fiction movie, NASA’s Morpheus Lander successfully conducted its first two back-to-back free-flight tests within a week, earlier this month at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility in Merritt Island, Fla.

Following the cancellation of the Constellation program and NASA’s refocusing of direction in 2010, many within the space community and among the general public have lamented the lack of an existing cargo and crew planetary landing capability. Yet, what many still don’t know is that NASA is steadily working—and has been for the last three years—on enabling such a capability through the development and testing of its Morpheus Lander.

Project Morpheus is an inter-agency collaboration, among many different NASA centers. Image Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace

Project Morpheus is an inter-agency collaboration among many different NASA centers. Image Credit: Alan Walters/AmericaSpace

The Morpheus Lander is a prototype planetary landing vehicle being developed by the space agency since 2010, in cooperation with the private space company Armadillo Aerospace. It is used as a testbed and technology demonstrator for the development of planetary landers that could access hard-to-reach areas on future missions to the Moon, Mars, or elsewhere. To that end, the Morpheus Lander employs a set of innovative technologies, like Vertical Takeoff, Vertical Landing (VTVL) and Autonomous Landing Hazard Avoidance Technology (ALHAT).

During its 3.5+ years of development, the Morpheus Lander has undergone many dozens of successful static hot fire tests and tethered-flight tests at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. But its development hasn’t been an uneventful one. In August 2012, during its second free-flight test at the Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility, the Lander crash landed moments after lift-off, following a malfunction that resulted in the complete loss of the vehicle. Not bogged down by the set back, the Morpheus team went on to design and build a new and upgraded prototype vehicle, utilising the lessons learned from the crash. While the August 2012 flight test was open for the media, many of which focused just on its failed outcome, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was quick to set things straight by emphasizing the point that such crash landings are part of the nature of what it means to test, which in turn gives valuable lessons to the engineering teams. “I am sure some might think of Morpheus as a failure since a significant piece of hardware crashed and burned while under test,” Bolden said during the development of the new prototype following the crash. “Contrary to this view, I regard Morpheus as a success. No one likes to lose equipment, but we recognized that failure is part of the price of learning and acted accordingly.”

All this effort finally paid off, for after a new series of dozens of tethered-flight tests the upgraded Lander claimed success during two impressive free-flight tests that took place within a week on Dec. 10 and 17 respectively.

During the first flight on Dec. 10 that lasted 54 seconds, Morpheus ascended 50 feet (15 m) off the ground. After hovering at that altitude for 15 seconds, it began flying forward prior to landing vertically approximately 23 feet (7 m) from its launch point. “It feels fantastic,” said Dr. Jon Olansen, Morpheus’ project manager, following the successful test. “We knew this vehicle could fly very well.”

Video Credit: NASA/JSC

A week later, on Dec. 17, Morpheus followed on with its second free-flight, which saw the vehicle rise 164 feet (50m) above the ground. Having tripled the altitude that had been achieved during the previous flight, the vehicle went on to fly forward covering a distance of 154 feet (47m), prior to conducting a vertical landing right on target at its predetermined landing spot, closing its 80-second highly successful second flight. It should be noted that the on-the-spot landing was pre-programmed and carried out by the lander without benefiting from the use of the hazard-avoidance ALHAT technology at all.

Video Credit: NASA/JSC

The VTVL technology used on Morpheus isn’t something new, with the infamous Apollo Lunar Modules being the first planetary landers to utilise it. ALHAT, on the other hand, comprises a new set of innovative technologies that would allow a future planetary lander to autonomously identify its landing area by creating 3-D maps of the surface on the fly, while being able to navigate and avoid hazardous terrain, ensuring a safe landing for future cargo and crew missions. The work being done with the Morpheus Lander could lead to the development of planetary landers that would be able to reach many places previously thought as inaccessible, like the Moon’s polar regions or deep craters on Mars. Morpheus’ recent successful flights are a positive sign for a developing capability that could make future missions to those places a reality.

A composite photo, showing the various stages of Morpheus' second successful free flight test on December 17 and the fourth overall for the Project. Image Credit: NASA/Johnson Space Center

A composite photo showing the various stages of Morpheus’ second successful free-flight test on Dec. 17 and the fourth overall for the Project. Image Credit: NASA/Johnson Space Center

Besides its advanced autonomous navigation and landing technologies, Morpheus utilises other innovative approaches as well. Its propellant is a mixture of “green,” non-toxic liquid oxygen/ liquid methane fuel, stored inside its four spherical propellant tanks. Future missions to the Moon and Mars could potentially produce these elements through in-situ resource utilisation, thus largely mitigating the need of carrying all the needed fuel with them from Earth. Though the current Morpheus prototype vehicle is relatively small, having a payload capacity of 500 kg, the Morpheus team hopes to scale it up in the future to be able to accommodate both crew and cargo. “This technology is scalable,” Olansen said during an earlier tethered flight test in June. “Starting with a small mission, we could scale all the way up to flying a habitat with a crew. And it’s this human bent we’re really pushing for.”

The Morpheus Lander at its launch site, at the Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility, prior to its second free flight test, on December 17. Image Credit: NASA/Johnson Space Center

The Morpheus Lander at its launch site at the Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility, prior to its second free flight test on Dec. 17. Image Credit: NASA/Johnson Space Center

In addition to the various technical innovations, Project Morpheus is also exhibiting some financial ones as well. The whole development costs since the Project started in 2010 have been kept below $10 million, with the cost of the replacement vehicle that conducted the recent successful tests being in the order of $750,000. The Project is also an example of inter-agency collaboration within NASA, with six of the space agency’s 10 centers being involved. As stated in the Project’s Facebook page, “Although Morpheus was designed and developed primarily at Johnson Space Center (JSC), other NASA centers, commercial entities, and academic institutions have supported its development and testing. For Morpheus and ALHAT, JSC has partnerships with Kennedy Space Center (KSC) for flight-testing; Stennis Space Center (SSC) for engine testing; Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) for engine development and lander expertise; Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) for core flight software development; and Langley Research Center (LaRC) and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for ALHAT development. Commercial partnerships with enterprises such as Jacobs Engineering, Armadillo Aerospace, Draper Labs, and others have augmented the development and operation of many aspects of the project.”

The team behind the Project plans on conducting more flee flights during 2014, further testing the vehicle’s autonomous navigation and hazard-avoidance capabilities. Aptly named after the ancient Greek god of dreams, the Morpheus Lander has the potential to make the dream of reusable planetary landers a reality.

The author would like to express his thanks to Alan Walters, AmericaSpace’s Senior Photographer, for providing photographs in support of this article.

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1 comment to Morpheus Rising: NASA’s Prototype Lander Vehicle Soars in Recent Free-Flight Tests

  • The technology has come a long way since the LLTV’s used by the Apollo astronauts. Crashes? Of course – they are part of technological development. Do we forget the many booster explosions in the early 1950’s and 1960’s? Did those setbacks stop us from developing the necessary technologies to make the moon landings possible? Of course not!
    This is great work by the scientists and engineers involved and hopefully will lead to continued exploration, both manned and unmanned, of our cosmic neighbors. Imagine a fleet of Morpheus-type vehicles sent to Europa, Titan and the other moons. Wow!