Dr. Jon Olansen is the Morpheus project manager at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. He 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.
“We are excited to now have the vehicle at Kennedy, and look forward to working with the center’s Morpheus team,” Olansen said. “We’ll hit the ground running.”
On Aug. 3, the Morpheus test team began putting the lander through its paces at the specially created hazard field located at the north end of Kennedy’s Shuttle Landing Facility. The hazard field, designed to mimic the surface of the moon, contains boulders, rocks, slopes and craters.
Greg Gaddis, NASA test director and Morpheus Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology (ALHAT) site manager at Kennedy, said it was difficult to turn the relatively flat, grassy area north of the landing facility into a crater-filled planetary scape for Morpheus to negotiate and land.
After this series of free-flight tests that expand the operational envelope, the vehicle will be ready to integrate the components of the ALHAT project. Sensors will be used to scan the field for hazards and redirect Morpheus’ landing to a safe location in the hazard field.
Chirold Epp, Johnson’s project manager for ALHAT, said techniques were developed to image the surface and identify all rocks and holes with an elevation change of 30 centimeters or greater and slopes greater than five degrees. Using this information, the ALHAT software determines the safe sites for the vehicle to land.
“ALHAT has the capability to take a digital elevation map in real-time in order to determine where the hazards are and communicate that to the vehicle, “Epp said. “We’re looking for accuracy. This technique is designed to help us get around the hazards.”
There are some test restrictions, according to Olansen. Winds must be between three and 23 mph, largely based on crane operations for tethered tests. No rain, lightning or significant weather can be in the vicinity of the test site.
Epp said the next hope is that NASA has a planetary mission where the technology could be used.
Project Morpheus is one of 20 small projects in the NASA Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate’s Advanced Exploration Systems program. These projects pioneer new approaches for rapidly developing prototype systems, demonstrating key capabilities and validating operational concepts for future human missions beyond Earth orbit.