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Morpheus, NASA's Green Spaceflight Testbed, Went Up in Smoke

On the heels of the successful SkyCrane landing on Mars, NASA's Morpheus crashes and burns.

Last week was one of huge success for NASA, but that didn’t come without failure. Last Sunday night, the rover Curiosity landed spectacularly and right on target inside Gale Crater on Mars. Then later in the week the agency lost its Morpheus prototype vehicle. There's no correlation between incidents, but one success followed by a failure serves as a great reminder that rocket science is really hard. Sometimes things go really well and other times everything catches on fire.

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The vehicle on fire in this scenario is Morpheus. Developed and built entirely in house at NASA's Johnson Space Centre (JSC), Morpheus is a vertical flying test bed designed to demonstrate new green propellant systems, test autonomous landing systems, and demonstrate a new hazard detection technology. It's all leading up to the technology that will use integrated propulsion, guidance, navigation, and control systems that will allow a spacecraft to land completely autonomously on the Moon.

But Morpheus is demonstrating more than just lunar landing abilities; the final product will be a full spacecraft with all the associated subsystems: avionics, software, guidance navigation and control, power and power distribution, structures, propulsion, and instrumentation. With these instruments on board, it will be able rendezvous and dock autonomously as well either with a similar vehicle or to a larger station. One spacecraft could dock with a fuel store, too, to give it the extra fuel for a bigger mission. With relatively simple hardware modifications the docking possibilities become substantial.

Morpheus' fuel system is another noteworthy aspect of the test program. It uses liquid oxygen (LOX) and methane instead of the traditional LOX and rocket-grade kerosene. LOX/methane can be stored for much longer periods in space, a huge bonus on long duration mission. But that's not the only benefit. Methane is one of the resources crews an spacecraft have access to off our planet. It can be derived from ice on the moon or Mars, meaning Morpheus-type spacecraft could take advantage of natural fuel depots around the solar system. Methane is also a by-product that could be recycled into fuel. Astronauts on the International Space Station dump an average of 1,000 pounds of methane as waste, enough to fill the Morpheus lander to capacity. The LOX and methane combination is also extremely cheap – 10 to 20 times cheaper than hypergolic fuels, another traditional fuel type where two fuels ignite on contact.

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As a working spacecraft, Morpheus has serious potential; it's big and powerful enough to carry 1,100 pounds of cargo to the moon. That's about the weight of a humanoid robot, a small rover, or a small laboratory capable of converting moon dust into oxygen for a crew that would arrive later. It's even able to get to the Moon by itself. Its fuel stores are big enough that once in Earth orbit it could ignite its engine for a trans lunar injection burn, that is to say the burn that will send it to the Moon.

Yesterday's test was the first free flight demonstration, but Morpheus didn't get a chance to demonstrate much of anything. It rose about a foot off the ground before the prototype spacecraft tipped over on its side and caught fire. It's pretty sad and unimpressive to watch, actually. It just sort of lies there smoldering, but not in the "come hither" way.

Whether this will stall or kill the Morpheus Program altogether is still unclear; canceling it would be a shame since cheaper and more versatile propellants could do wonders for the future of spaceflight. So far NASA Public Affairs at the Kennedy Space Center's have just issues a press statement saying the failure was rooted in a hardware component. Something prevented Morpheus from achieving stable flight, and it developed a lilt from which it couldn't recover. On the plus side, no one was injured and KSC personnel managed to put out the fire.

In any case, there's certainly been valuable data derived from this project. This is, after all, actual rocket science, and every failure is a lesson. But that doesn't mean it gets easier.

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