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Posted on September 19th, 2012

The Morpheus Project

This month’s Reaching Orbit takes a decidedly tragic turn as we take a look at the Morpheus Lander, which failed to take off properly during a free flight test on August 7th, 2012. Morpheus in a nutshell is a ‘lean development’ project with the aim of creating a lunar lander that is designed to use cheaper, cleaner and lighter fuel. Morpheus is intended to carry cargo up to 1,100 pounds to the Moon and/or Mars; and would have the capability to carry any number of packages, such as supplies, robotic instruments or even experimental projects to orbiting and lunar bodies at a much lower cost. A ‘lander’ is a complete spacecraft that has all the associated subsystems such as navigation, software, avionics, guidance, control, power systems, etc. to land on or dock with interstellar objects.

Since the Apollo program, NASA has used hypergolic propellants – which are very dependable fuel sources as mixing chemical components is all it takes to ignite the propellant. The downside is that it they are expensive and the chemicals are extremely toxic and heavy. This motivated NASA to search for alternative fuel sources, which in turn lead them to a partnership with Armadillo Aerospace who is developing the new engine. Engineers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center oversee the project along with designing and creating the nozzle. The Partnership Program allows NASA to share limited resources and funding with private companies, such as Armadillo, in order to continue developing technologies for its future missions. Armadillo has a shared interest in creating engines that use fuel that is safe, cheap and readily available as they plan on creating spacecraft for commercial use. In the partnership, NASA shares its expertise with designing infrastructure for takeoff and landing vehicles while Armadillo experiments with engine design in a quick turnaround facility. The search for a more cost-effective propellant led them to the combination of liquid oxygen and liquid methane. In comparison to other propellants, this combination is 10 to 20 times cheaper and performs better while being safe to operate and test since it’s nontoxic. In fact, methane can be made from ice on Mars or the Moon and even from methane waste created by the International Space Station which totals about 1,000 pounds a year. NASA is working on reactors to convert moon dust into oxygen or create methane from the Mars atmosphere.

The initial hot-fire test of the liquid oxygen-methane combination was a success on Pixel, the first Lander that was created by the NASA-Armadillo partnership. Morpheus passed a number of its own tests including a tether test on August 3rd, 2012. On August 7th, during the free flight test, Morpheus experienced hardware failure. While the exact cause is still under investigation, it was discovered that data was lost from the Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) which directs navigation information to the flight computer. Without this information, the flight computer is flying blind with no idea which way is up or where the vehicle is heading, which could cause the vehicle to tumble and crash into the ground. As painful as this is for the team that has been so tirelessly working on this project, they are undaunted by the crash, and they are quick to point out that this is why they create and test prototypes. This is not the first or last time a prototype will fail due to hardware issues. A spare vehicle is already under construction and is a few months from completion. Many first have already been achieved during this project and more are sure to come as NASA and Armadillo continue collaborating to further lander technology in space and at home.

Katie Nelson

Geospatial Ninja

(303) 718-7163


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