What a beautiful day for sticking a cucumber through someone’s letterbox and shouting, “Help, help, the Martians have landed! Because NASA’s Morpheus Project has developed and tested a prototype planetary lander capable of vertical takeoff and landing.
They say a “great” landing is one that lets you use the ship another time. NASA’s strategic goal of extending human presence across the solar system requires an integrated architecture. Such architecture would include advanced, robust space vehicles for a variety of lunar, asteroid, and planetary missions; automated hazard detection and avoidance technologies to reduce risks to crews, landers, and precursor robotic payloads; and in situ resource utilization to support crews during extended stays on extraterrestrial surfaces and to provide for their safe return to Earth. NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) portfolio includes several fast-paced projects that are developing these necessary capabilities.
So ladies and gentlemen, let us introduce NASA’s rather groovy Project Morpheus – a prototype planetary lander capable of vertical takeoff and landing. For Range Safety purposes the Morpheus#1 prototype falls into the category of guided suborbital reusable rocket. Morpheus uses a liquid oxygen (LOX)/liquid methane propulsion system with up to 321 second burn time. Specifically, the Morpheus project and the Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology (ALHAT) project provide technological foundations for key components of the greater exploration architecture necessary to move humans beyond low Earth orbit (LEO).
Project Morpheus is a NASA project to develop a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) test vehicle called Morpheus Lander in order to demonstrate a new nontoxic spacecraft propellant system (methane and oxygen) and an autonomous landing and hazard detection technology. The prototype planetary lander is capable of vertical takeoff and landings. The vehicles are NASA designed robotic landers that will be able to land and takeoff with 1,100 pounds (500 kg) of cargo on the Moon. The prospect is an engine that runs reliably on propellants that are not only cheaper and safer here on Earth, but could also be potentially manufactured on the Moon or even Mars. (See: In-situ resource utilization.)
The Alpha prototype lander was manufactured and assembled at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) and Armadillo Aerospace’s facility near Dallas. The prototype lander is a “spacecraft” that is about 12 ft (3.7 m) in diameter, weighs approximately 2,300 lb (1,000 kg) and consists of four silver spherical propellant tanks topped by avionics boxes and a web of wires.
The project is trying out cost and time saving “lean development” engineering practices. Other project activities include appropriate ground operations, flight operations, range safety and the instigation of software development procedures. Landing pads and control centers were also constructed. From the project start in July 2010, about $10 million was spent on materials in the following 3+ years; so the Morpheus project is considered lean and low-cost for NASA. In 2012 the project employed 25 full-time team members, and 60 students.
Project Morpheus started in July 2010 and was named after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams. The Morpheus spacecraft was derived from the experimental lander produced by Project M with the assistance of Armadillo Aerospace. Project M (NASA) was a NASA initiative to design, develop and land a humanoid robot on the lunar surface in 1000 days. Work on some of the landers systems began in 2006, when NASA’s Constellation program planned a human return to the Moon.
In the same year 2006, Armadillo Aerospace entered the first Pixel rocket lander into the Lunar Lander Challenge part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges.
The Morpheus #1 Unit A test vehicle was first hot-fired 15 April 2011.
Morpheus’s new 4,200 pounds-force (19,000 N) engine permitted NASA to design a larger vehicle than its parent, a copy of Armadillo Aerospace’s Pixel rocket lander. The engine was upgraded again to 5,000 pounds-force (22,000 N) in 2013. A new design of landing gear was part of the Mechanical changes. NASA also replaced the avionics – this included power distribution and storage, instrumentation, the flight computer, communications and software. The enhanced landing system permits Morpheus, unlike the Pixels, to land without help from a pilot.