Moving Forward, Not Starting Over

"A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for."

-John Augustus Shedd

On Thursday we made our second free flight attempt with the Morpheus prototype vehicle.  As you can see in the video below, shortly after liftoff we experienced a hardware failure and lost the vehicle.  The root cause is still under investigation,  but what we do know is that at the start of  ascent we lost data from the Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) that supplies navigation updates to the flight computer.  Without this measurement the vehicle is blind and does not know which way it is pointing or accelerating.  Since this data is needed to maintain stable flight, the vehicle could not determine which way was up and began to tumble and  impacted the ground about 50 feet from the launch site.  No one was injured, no property was damaged besides the vehicle and we have been able to recover significant data, which will give us greater insight into the source of the problem.

We have said it before and will continue to say, this is why we test.  We have already learned a lot from this test and will continue to learn as we recover data and evaluate the hardware.   No test article should be too precious to lose.  A spare vehicle was planned from the start and is just a few months away from completion.  The basic development approach is to quickly build, test and redesign the hardware to achieve many design cycles and maturity before building flight articles.

Tether Test 20: First KSC Flight

The Morpheus team successfully flew our first tether test at Kennedy Space Center on Friday August 3rd.  The objectives for this flight, along with the dry and wet runs earlier in the week, were to verify all systems were in good working order after shipping from Johnson Space Center in July and to allow the new KSC support team an opportunity to move through flight procedures.

After looking over the data over the weekend and coming together for a Test Readiness Review, our Project Manager, Jon Olansen, approved our first ever free flight for August 7th.  This will be the first time we will fly the vehicle without a crane attached.  The crane was used in previous tests as a safety mechanism to allow each subsystem to safely tune their individual systems for a smooth stable flight.

Testing Begins at KSC

NASA's Project Morpheus lander is moving one step closer to achieving autonomous flight and landing. After undergoing testing at Johnson Space Center in Houston for nearly a year, Morpheus arrived at the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 27 to begin about three months of tests.
Morpheus and the new hazard field at KSC

Dr. Jon Olansen is the Morpheus project manager at Johnson. He said a small, dedicated team in Houston completed substantial work to design, develop, integrate and test the Morpheus prototype lander.

"We completed the fundamental testing needed to characterize vehicle performance while tethered at JSC," Olansen said. "Now it's time to move on to the next phase of the project where we fly the vehicle autonomously in free flight."

Olansen said the testing at Kennedy will continually expand the flight envelope until they can fully simulate the final approach and landing phases of a planetary surface entry.

Blazing a New Trail

Dolores Petropulos
After retiring from the Orlando police force, Dolores Petropulos aimed for a new career in computer science. An internship with NASA's Undergraduate Student Research Project, or USRP, helped her advance her passion for computer programming and spark a new dream of working in robotics and artificial intelligence.

In which NASA student opportunity project did you participate, and how did you get involved in it?

I was offered a USRP internship by NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. I applied on SOLAR (Student Online Application for Recruiting Interns, Fellows and Scholars).

Explain the research you conducted through your NASA involvement and why this topic is important.

I developed, tested and used simulation software for Project Morpheus, the second prototype (version 1.5) of an autonomous rocket/moon lander. In classical mythology, Morpheus is a god of dreams. He appeared in the dreams of mortals and had the ability to take any male human form. In the NASA Johnson Space Center research project Morpheus, the next moon lander/rocket is designed for autonomous flight or many different types of flight. It is portable and could be used to send a robotic or manned mission to a distant planet. Morpheus has an onboard navigation and guidance system and a precision landing and hazard avoidance system (ALHAT). These systems will allow Morpheus to fly autonomously, or with limited interaction from mission control. The ALHAT project stands for Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology and involves active sensors for terrain-relative navigation and hazard avoidance. Morpheus' propulsion system consists of an oxygen/methane fuel-type system, which also can be derived from space and terrestrial atmospheres, providing potential in situ resource use opportunities. My work on this project involved developing, testing and using simulation and flight software. In particular, I have been incorporating portions of the capabilities of the Autonomous Flight Manager into the NASA Goddard Core Flight Software, which was obtained at the beginning of the Morpheus project. Reuse of the proven Core Flight Software with new software components specific to Morpheus is an experiment in affordable extensibility of a vehicle's capability. The software components specifically involved in my project are the Autonomous Flight Manager, the Sequencer and the Limit Checker.

Mindi Capp/NASA Educational Technology Services
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Engineers in Training

Sometimes I think that taking the exploration work we do to the public is as important for us as it is for them.

We'd cordoned off three sides of Morpheus at Space Center today to prevent unauthorized pinching, patting, or souvenir sampling of the lander. However, Tom Campbell, the Morpheus GNC hardware engineer, had the great idea to take kids that showed interest onesy-twosey down on the ground to look under the lander and see the rocket motor. The effect was striking. You could see the light in the kids' eyes after they got up from the baking concrete. They'd just seen a rocket engine that changes the temperature of its propellant almost 3000 degrees F in less than a foot and a half of travel.

Tom's words after one kid got up and walked away chatting to his parents:

"We just made another engineer."

Look Out for Those Rocks!

The words "hazard field" certainly never were associated with the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. To the contrary, the goal was to keep the runway area free of any hazards that might endanger the shuttle and crew during landing. But that is about to change when, in the not-too-distant future, the facility will offer a prototype space vehicle the kind of landing hazard field necessary for realistic testing.

An area near the runway will be turned into a field of hazards as part of the next phase of tests for the Project Morpheus lander, which integrates technologies that someday could be used to build future spacecraft destined for asteroids, Mars or the moon. The lander has been undergoing testing at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston for almost a year in preparation for its first free flight. During that flight testing, it will rise almost 100 feet into the air, fly 100 feet laterally, and then land safely.

Testing Picks Back Up

After sticking to the ground for upgrades the past several months, the Project Morpheus prototype lander took to the skies at Johnson Space Center again on Tuesday.

Since its last round of tests in 2011, the Morpheus team has given the liquid oxygen/liquid methane-fueled lander a new engine, new avionics and a power unit redesign. In addition, the vehicle software has been substantially updated in preparation for the integration of its Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology (ALHAT) payload. The lander has the same oxygen and methane tanks, and the same structure, but otherwise it’s practically an all-new vehicle.

“The first series of tests gave us a basic understanding of our ability to control the vehicle and allowed us to initially characterize the performance of the subsystems on the vehicle,” Morpheus Project Manager Jon Olansen said. “With that information we were able to go back and design in upgrades to improve performance and reliability.”

Once the upgrades were complete, it was time to start up a new series of tests. Like last time, they started with hot fire tests to demonstrate engine operation, and this week worked up to tethered testing. On Tuesday, the refitted lander successfully hovered 15 feet above the ground for 40 seconds, firing the engine for a total of 50 seconds with ignition, ascent and descent.