CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - At the edge of Kennedy Space Center's old shuttle landing facility, the next big thing for NASA had a pretty historic day.
For the first time, the four-legged Morpheus Lander didn't fly a pre-programmed trajectory, but instead relied on laser sensors to safely land it on a moon-like hazard field.
"It is going to be the technology that enables a vehicle, whether it's a robotic mission or not, to do a precision landing on the moon, mars, or an asteroid," said project manager Greg Gaddis.
Gaddis is talking about the Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology, or ALHAT as NASA's engineers call it.
It's been attached to Morpheus for the past few free-flights, but hasn't been used until Thursday. NASA hopes someday ALHAT can be integrated into future spacecraft.
"We're going to prove that ALHAT is the technology that we need to put on robotic missions, manned missions, whatever to go do precise landings that we need to do," said Gaddis.
During Thursday's launch, the Morpheus Lander flew for 98 seconds and went 800 feet up from its launch pad.
It's unclear what will happen to the prototype after finishing its stint of practice launches from KSC, but officials say the $14 million project has paved the way for future planetary missions.
The next free-flight for Morpheus will be next Wednesday.
For the first time, NASA officials say it will be tested at night to prove the laser sensors function just as well in darkness.
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