CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - A moon-inspired field of dreams beckoned NASA's Morpheus lander at Kennedy Space Center.
Named for the Greek god of dreams, the prototype lander lifted off Tuesday for a fourth time at KSC and descended into the "hazard field" strewn with boulders and craters north of the former shuttle runway.
According to Local 6 News partner Florida Today, it's as close as the four-legged vehicle defined by four silver, spherical propellant tanks will ever get to another celestial surface, but hints at the possibilities its "green" propulsion system and advanced landing sensors hold.
Before the test flight, Jon Olansen, the project's leader from Johnson Space Center, said seeing Morpheus touch down in the simulated lunar landscape conjures an "otherworldly" sensation.
"It does give you that sense that we are making progress in things that will allow us to eventually set foot on other planets," he said.
The KSC flights are an early step toward that goal, testing technologies that could prove useful to robotic or human exploration.
The initial focus is a rocket engine powered by liquid methane and liquid oxygen.
The non-toxic, or "green," propellants could land or move a Morpheus-like vehicle on the moon, an asteroid or Mars. Methane fuel, which is easier to store in space than hydrogen, could also contribute to power and life-support systems.
Later, Morpheus will demonstrate a sensor package that can scan the ground below in any lighting conditions, rank the best available landing sites and change course if the targeted site looks dangerous.
Such a precision landing capability "opens up a lot of areas of scientific interest that currently we cannot approach, just because of the hazards that exist there," said Olansen.
Morpheus must prove its flight-worthiness over several more tests before adding the sensors known as ALHAT, for Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology, which are worth more than the vehicle itself.
Having spent about $13 million over four years, not counting the cost of a 40-person civil servant team, Morpheus is considered a "lean" development project that limits costs by accepting more risks.
That reality was on full display during the project's first visit to KSC in August 2012. If Morpheus inspired dreams then, they were nightmares.
Seconds after lifting off on its first free flight, Morpheus lost navigation data, pitched over and crashed with an explosion that made national news.
To the engineers, it was an unfortunate, but still useful, experience.
"There are good tests and there are good tests," Olansen said. "We learned a lot from that."
A replacement vehicle, Morpheus "Bravo," was built for $750,000 and includes more than 70 upgrades, including to the ground systems prepared by KSC personnel.
Morpheus now lifts off over a flame trench embedded in its mobile launch pad, to reduce noise vibrations believed to have contributed to the 2012 failure.
On Tuesday, Morpheus climbed 305 feet, flew down range 350 feet and descended to a concrete landing pad inside the hazard field, doubling its peak speed from the previous test.
Measuring about 10 feet tall and 10 feet wide, Morpheus and its blue exhaust plume likely won't be visible from a distance, but the tests were streamed live online.
Memories of the crash add tension to the flights lasting less than 2 minutes.
Three successful flights since December have built confidence, but the Bravo vehicle still has numerous systems for which a single failure could result in more pyrotechnics.
"There is a potential every time we fly that we have a problem," said Olansen. "That keeps the cost down. But because of that, there is a little bit of anxiety, I guess, as we go fly."
Morpheus flies itself. Once it is off the ground, engineers in a control center at the base of the shuttle runway's tower can only watch, or order an abort if necessary for safety reasons.
After Tuesday, the launch pad will be moved farther away for two flights, then moved again for the final series of four tests with the landing sensors installed. Those are planned in March and April.
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." 24034114
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