By the end, Morpheus will hover above the hazard field composed of recycled river rock from the shuttle crawlerway and busted up chunks of concrete.

The sensors will scan 311 rock piles, 24 craters and two steep slopes — arranged to mimic an actual section of the moon — then override a programmed landing site and guide Morpheus to a pad hidden by fine river rock particles.

If the tests are successful, future missions may incorporate the new technologies, but the Morpheus project’s future is undetermined.

The low-budget tests are a small diversion from KSC’s primary responsibility to prepare for a test launch of NASA’s massive new human exploration rocket, possibly in 2017.

But they recall the type of operations for which the center once prided itself. Since the last shuttle mission in 2011, Morpheus is the only NASA vehicle to rocket from KSC and land there.

Gregory Gaddis, KSC site manager for the Morpheus tests, said center director Bob Cabana and others were “excited about having smoke and fire back at Kennedy Space Center.”