WASHINGTON — In the program’s seventh untethered flight, NASA’s Morpheus rocket-powered test lander touched down safely amid rough terrain Feb. 10 at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The lander, built by engineers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, launched 142 meters into the air, then flew about 194 meters laterally over a simulated boulder field before descending for what the project team, on its Twitter account, called a “spot on landing.”
All seven untethered flights under NASA’s Project Morpheus program have been carried out by the vehicle that flew Feb. 10, dubbed Bravo. The first Morpheus test vehicle to attempt a free flight — Alpha Vehicle — was destroyed in August 2012. The project team said faulty hardware was to blame. Since the accident, Morpheus Bravo Vehicle has flown more or less without incident.
Rockets that take off and land vertically can be used to test, among other things, guidance and navigation systems programmed to help planetary landing craft autonomously negotiate uncharted extraterrestrial terrain. Such vehicles could also be used here on Earth to subject science experiments or experimental technology to the stresses of rocket flight. .
Small startup companies have developed rocket-powered vehicles similar to Morpheus. Last year, Masten Space Systems’ Xombie rocket flew a simulated lunar landing, similar to what Morpheus did Feb. 10, using a guidance system developed for NASA by Draper Laboratory of Cambridge, Mass. Masten of Mojave, Calif., has been flying Xombie since 2009. Blue Origin, the secretive outfit founded by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, also has been experimenting with vertical-takeoff-and-landing rockets. Blue Origin eventually hopes to fly people aboard its vertical-takeoff vehicles, unlike Masten or NASA.
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