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Project Morpheus to Begin Testing at NASA's Johnson Space Center

April 8, 2011
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HOUSTON-Neighbors of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston may notice some loud noises coming from the 1,600-acre site in the coming weeks.

Johnson's Engineering Directorate is ready to begin testing its prototype lander as part of Project Morpheus-a vertical test bed designed to integrate technologies that could be used to build future spacecraft intended to land on the moon, Mars, asteroids or any other foreign surface.

The last time a prototype spacecraft was flown at Johnson, man hadn't yet landed on the moon. Located as it is in the middle of a busy urban area, the site isn't suitable as a launch site for the programs-such as the space shuttle and Apollo-that have called it home. But for the past 10 months, Johnson engineers have been working on Morpheus, and now they're ready to put it to the test.

"Morpheus is tangible proof that we can and are doing amazing and exciting things advancing exploration systems with a different paradigm," says Steve Altemus, director of Johnson's engineering directorate. "Over the past year, with very little funds, by leveraging our facilities and commercial partners, and most importantly by unleashing the power of our workforce, we put a functioning spacecraft together."

Though the schedule is weather dependent, the first Morpheus hot fire is set for Friday. Engineers will strap the vehicle down in a field on site, and fire the engine for 5 to 10 seconds. There will likely be a series of these tests, before the engineers move to tethered tests, in which the engine is fired while the vehicle is suspended from a crane.

The buildings closest to the tests, on- or off-site, stand about 2,000 feet away. At that distance, one can expect to hear the engine firings at a level of about 93 decibels-comparable to standing next to a lawn mower.

If all goes well, the tests will culminate with Morpheus' first free flight on May 4, as part of Johnson's Innovation Day activities. That will require the untethered vehicle to rise almost 100 feet into the air, fly 100 feet to the west and land safely. It is not an exact match for what the vehicle would be required to do on the moon or another planet or asteroid, but it allows the engineers to prove safely and cheaply that the various components of the vehicle work together as a system.

"In a lot of ways, this is what people came to NASA to do: To build things, to fly things," Project Morpheus Manager Matt Ondler says. "So it's a great opportunity to learn how to build things and fly things."

Morpheus is intended to prove two key technologies that could be used in future exploration: One, Automated Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology, would enable a lander to navigate itself around rocks, craters and other hazards, and into a safe landing space. The other is the use of liquid oxygen and methane as a propellant-these "green" fuels are cheaper and safer to use here on Earth, and could also be manufactured on the moon or even Mars.

Both technologies were being studied at Johnson well before Morpheus began to take shape, but integrating them into one vehicle allows engineers to verify that they'll work in real life, as well as in the lab.

"When you integrate all the different subsystems, you really learn a lot that you don't get from doing things individually in the lab," Ondler says. "So it's important to be able to do this testing here, to give our workforce the right hands-on opportunities to become better engineers and more capable of affordably building NASA's next vehicle."

To ensure that the free flight test could be done safely, Morpheus has two completely redundant termination systems. It would take multiple failures for the vehicle to leave its projected flight path. However, if that were to happen, the vehicle still would not be able to travel more than about 500 feet in any direction with the amount of propellant it will have, leaving some 1,500 feet between it and the nearest buildings.

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