Morpheus set for KSC return ahead of December tests

by Chris Bergin

Morpheus – an experimental lander project – is set to make its return to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), ahead of the resumption of testing in December. Morpheus – which has conducted numerous tether tests at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) – will be hoping for a happier Florida stay, after it dramatically exploded during a previous KSC test in August, 2012.

Project Morpheus:

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 (documentation available in L2).

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).

The focus of the project is now aimed more at Morpheus being 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.

Working on the fine-tuning of the vehicle’s control and stability, 19 tethered tests were conducted on Morpheus through to 2012 at JSC.

Morpheus then made its way to the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) at KSC, ahead of attempting its first free flight over a specially constructed hazard field of craters and rocks at the end of the runway.

Z3However, the test – conducted in August of last year – did not go to plan, as the vehicle’s Thrust Vector Control (TVC) system suffer a major malfunction, sending it into a roll, prior to crashing into the ground.

Although SLF fire crews were on hand, the pressurized system could not be approached as it laid crippled on the site. Eventually, the fire breached the pressurized fuel tanks, resulting in it exploding.

The Morpheus team, now combined with the Autonomous Landing Hazard Avoidance Technology (ALHAT) team members, were then directed to build the Morpheus 1.5B and 1.5C vehicles, ahead of a return to static hot fire and dynamic tethered flight tests at JSC in early 2013.

Z4At the end of October, the lander’s engine was successfully ignited six times in a row, with each burn lasted 600 milliseconds. This period of testing has been challenging, resulting in the test schedule at KSC to be delayed several times.

Per L2 information, the latest schedule calls for the Morpheus to arrive at KSC for offload at the T-Shelter on November 12.

Should this schedule hold, a Dry Run will be conducted on December 3, followed by a Wet Run the following day.

A Test Readiness Review will then precede the first tether test at the SLF on December 6, allowing for a series of three Free Flight Operations during the middle of December, ahead of a potential first flight campaign on December 18.

Should the testing all go to plan, Morpheus can then directly contribute to numerous technology goals. After all, Morpheus is designed as a full spacecraft system, 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.

Specific missions for a matured Morpheus project are as yet unknown, although the team recently noted they hope to scale the 500 kg payload lander up to produce one able to land a habitat with a crew on places such as the Moon – as much as that would likely be in support of a commercial mission, now NASA’s leadership have completely ruled out a crewed return to the Moon.

(Images: Via L2 content. Other images via NASA)

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