As the NASA shuttle program fades into the sunset, the space agency is quietly planning for travel beyond Earth's orbit and beyond the moon. The recent Mars expeditions are just the opening salvos. More planetary travel is on the way, even if the mission is not yet clear. NASA is stepping ahead of the mission planers and getting prepared to roam planets, whether the payload is robots or humans.
NASA has started test launching a spacecraft designed to lift off and land on planetary surfaces. Project Morpheus has produced a 5,000-pound landing craft that can take off and land autonomously -- or it can be piloted by humans inside. "The Morpheus Project was launched a few years ago to build a vertical takeoff and landing vehicle," Jon Olansen, manager of Project Morpheus, told Design News. "It allows us to use the propulsion of liquid oxygen and methane, and also an autonomous landing."
One of the features of the Morpheus landing vehicle is its ability to find just the right spot to set down. "The instruments enable the vehicle to stay above the landing area while searching for hazards -- boulders and rough terrain -- and then find a safe site within the landing area," he told us. "We're now demonstrating our ability to autonomously land the vehicle safety."
Any planet you like
The craft was designed specifically for space and planet surfaces. Olansen noted that it would not be able to break out of Earth's atmosphere. "Our current setup is for terrestrial landing," he said. "We're looking to be able to use the technology on multiple planet surfaces or for in-space propulsion."
The vehicle is large enough to carry humans, but the craft was designed to either carry humans or operate without humans aboard. "It is not requited for humans, but we're developing it so it will be able to carry humans," said Olansen. "This suite of instruments would be for humans, and they could also be used to run the vehicle automatically."
Build it and they will come
The Morpheus vehicle was not created with a specific mission in mind. However, it is clearly designed as a vehicle for traveling on the surface of a planet. "We're trying to advance the technologies so they're ready for whatever mission commands come in the future," said Olansen. "We're trying to advance it so it becomes one of the possibilities for planet travel but not for a specific mission."
A spacecraft by trial and error
Unlike some NASA projects such as the Mars Rover that was painstakingly designed to meet and succeed through a very specific set of movement in a specific atmosphere, the Morpheus Project takes a less expensive tack -- trial and error. "This project is a challenge because it's a lean development. We're doing it quickly at low cost," said Olansen. "Many different components on the vehicle have failed. When they do, we rebuild, recover, and advance the technology." The project has implemented 70 different upgrades to the vehicle and ground systems to address potential contributors to test failure, and also