Project Morpheus free flight test at the SLF ends in dramatic failure

by Chris Bergin

The experimental lander known as Project Morpheus had a rather dramatic return to Earth on Thursday, crashing on to a specially constructed test site before catching fire and exploding. The test was its debut free flight at the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) in Florida, following numerous tethered tests at the Johnson Space Center (JSC).

Morpheus Test Failure:

Morpheus is a vertical test bed demonstrating green propellant propulsion systems and autonomous landing and hazard detection technology. The system is a prototype lander engineers can use to integrate technologies for future spacecraft that could land on a variety of destinations in our solar system.

The benefit of a propulsion system that uses liquid oxygen and methane is that it could be manufactured on other planetary bodies. Morpheus’ hazard detection technology also provides the capability of identifying and avoiding surface hazards to enable a safe and accurate landing anywhere on a planetary surface and under any lighting conditions.

Although it suffered from a few early hiccups during tethered flight tests at JSC, “lessons learned” – the very reason for conducting tests – helped engineering teams to increase the control and stability of the vehicle, with 19 tethered tests ending with a very stable flight, as it hovered gracefully around 10 meters off the deck for over a minute back in July.

These tests were conducted for almost a year in preparation for its first free flight over a specially constructed area of the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) – where teams spent the last two months creating a hazard field of craters and rocks at the end of the runway.

However, its debut in Florida – which was also its first free flight – ended seconds after ignition, as its Thrust Vector Control (TVC) system that directs the engine nozzle appeared to suffer a major malfunction, sending it into a roll, prior to crashing into the ground.

Video footage of the failure showed the vehicle catching fire, prior to exploding.

“During today’s free-flight test, the Project Morpheus vehicle lifted off the ground and then experienced a hardware component failure, which prevented it from maintaining stable flight,” noted a KSC release.

“No one was injured, and the resulting fire was extinguished by KSC fire personnel. Engineers are looking into the incident, and the agency will release information as it becomes available.”

Manufactured and assembled at JSC and Armadillo Aerospace, the Morpheus system is large enough to carry 1,100 pounds of cargo to the moon – ranging from a humanoid robot, a small rover, or a small laboratory to convert moon dust into oxygen – performing all propellant burns after the trans lunar injection.

It was heavily associated with a project to send a version of the Robonaut – like the one currently on the International Space Station (ISS) –  to the Moon. This was known as Project M.

This notional mission would see the robot and lander launched from KSC on a commercial expendable launch vehicle and inserted into a trans-lunar trajectory. Once at the moon, the spacecraft would be inserted into a low lunar orbit where it would orbit until ready to perform the entry, descent, and landing (EDL).

Now a well-known acronym – thanks to the amazing success of the more ambitious Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission – EDL relates to the powered descent using a liquid oxygen and methane engine and autonomous precision landing and hazard avoidance guidance, navigation, and control system.

The spacecraft would be delivered to a landing spot within 100 meters of the target. Landing sites of interest may include, but are not limited to, an Apollo landing site or a site of scientific value such as the Aristarchus crater.

The primary focus of the test bed is also 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. The special hazard field at the SLF was designed to challenge the ALHAT system.

Additional objectives include technology demonstrations – such as, tank material and manufacture, reaction control thrusters, main engine performance improvements, helium pressurization systems, ground operations, flight operations, range safety, software and avionics architecture.

As noted on one of the official sites for the project, Morpheus is a full spacecraft, with all the associated subsystems: avionics; software; guidance, navigation and control; power; power distribution; structures; propulsion; and instrumentation.

The system is also associated with the efforts relating to in-space propellant transfer, not least because Morpheus utilizes the propellant of choice for future missions that would utilize in-space refueling and/or depots.

In addition, the lander has all the systems required for automated rendezvous and docking. With modification of the propellant and pressurization system for transfer plumbing and a docking mechanism that meets the international docking standard, two landers could rendezvous in low Earth orbit and demonstrate all the key technologies required for in-space propellant transfer and storage of mid-temperature range cryogenic propellants.

While the failure is a major blow for the project, it is understood another Morpheus lander was already under construction, potentially allowing for it to be completed to continue the testing.

Such a future effort will be pending the outcome of the investigation into Thursday’s failure.

(Images via L2 and NASA)

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