After a successful free flight in March, NASA plans to conduct further flight testing with Morpheus today using ALHAT technology to find a clean landing spot in a field strewn with boulders. Morpheus is an unmanned landing module under development by NASA to be used for touchdown on other planets, presumably Mars at first. Given the strong likelihood that the module will land on rough terrain, NASA is developing a sensor system for Morpheus to find a soft landing area. The landing sensor system is known as ALHAT, which is short for Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology.
Methane and liquid oxygen power Morpheus’ engine weighing over two and a half tons. Morpheus underwent a successful 83 second free flight in March, reaching a height of 580 feet before making a flawless landing. The craft travelled a distance of over 800 feet to reach the landing field. See the video of the test below.
NASA tested ALHAT with a tethered launch of Morpheus in March as well. The previous free flight undertaken by Morpheus also tested the ALHAT scanners, but the ALHAT did not control the location of the landing. The experiment today is called an open-loop test in which the computers on board Morpheus will control the flight. The ALHAT sensors will scan the test field to locate a soft landing spot. The ALHAT technology is eight years in the making and NASA is excited about its possibilities. To date, ALHAT has performed as expected. Today’s NASA test of boulder avoidance by Morpheus is the next step in the process of using ALHAT for space flight.
While perhaps not as exciting as a manned space craft, Morpheus will allow further scientific exploration of new worlds. The craft is designed to hold over 1,000 pounds of payload. Given the news of potential asteroids hitting the earth to cause destruction, Morpheus could become an asteroid killer if the need arises. The payload carried by Morpheus could contain mines for laying on an asteroid surface.
Each time NASA tests Morpheus, more complexity will be added to the flight. In this instance, ALHAT computers will control the landing location. Further testing will require more advanced maneuvers by the craft, such as flying higher and executing turns. Thusfar, Morpheus has flown straight up and moved directly over to the landing field.
The methane propellant used by Morpheus is considered more environment and earth friendly than the liquid hydrogen generally used. Workers are not required to wear hazmat suits to handle the fuel. Methane also has the advantage of being denser than hydrogen, which is beneficial to space craft design because its storage tanks do not need to be as large. With every ounce of weight on a space craft being crucial, smaller tanks potentially mean more payload.
The NASA Morpheus boulder avoidance test will hopefully show off ALHAT’s abilities. With a methane based propulsion system and computer guided sensors for landing, Morpheus is laying the groundwork for exploring new frontiers and maybe even saving us from an asteroid disaster. Today’s test should bes another baby step in the right direction for Morpheus.
By William Costolo