While the spotlight this month has been firmly on Curiosity's rendezvous with the Red Planet, NASA has also been showcasing some of the technology we can expect to see on future missions in the form of the Morpheus Lander.
Morpheus (named after the ancient Greek god of dreams) was designed as a prototype lander that engineers can use to integrate technologies for future spacecraft with the potential to land in a variety of destinations within the solar system.
The lander has been put through testing over the past year at the Stennis Space Center and the Johnson Space Center and flew its first tether test at Kennedy Space Center on Friday August 3rd (see video below).
These new technologies include an advanced hazard detection system and a methane-based propulsion system.
The use of methane is of particular interest, as it exhibits a number of desirable features for extended space travel. Not only is it cheaper and safer to operate, but it can also be stored for longer periods of time in space than common rocket fuel and could potentially be made from ice found on the moon or Mars. There’s also a fuel source a little closer to home, with NASA experts estimating that the International Space Station produces and discards enough methane gas to fill Morpheus‘s fuel tanks every year. The propulsion system also uses liquid oxygen, a substance that can be produced from moon dust.
Morpheus' onboard navigation and guidance system allows it to fly completely autonomously or with limited interaction from mission control. It can also detect and subsequently avoid surface hazards such as boulders using its sensor-laden Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance System (ALHAT).
Teams spent two months building a hazard field of rocks and craters at the end of the runway at the Kennedy Shuttle Landing Facility in preparation for testing this system.
Morpheus is one of the 20 projects that form NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems Program, which aims to developing new systems for future human missions beyond the earth.