NASA’s US$7m Morpheus lander crashes and burns at Cape Canaveral

10 Aug 2012

Morpheus ground-level hot fire on 2 April. Photo via NASA

Morpheus, a NASA-designed spacecraft that has been created to test greener, leaner forms of space travel in the future to the moon and elsewhere, and which featured autonomous landing technology, has crashed and gone ablaze at Cape Canaveral, Florida, after the lander experienced a hardware component failure yesterday during a test run.

NASA had spent in the region of US$7m developing the prototype spacecraft over the past two and a half years.

Yesterday, Morpheus‘ engines had ignited, lifting the prototype off the ground. However, in a statement, NASA said the prototype then experienced a “hardware component failure”, with the lander then plunging to the ground and bursting into flames.

“No one was injured and the resulting fire was extinguished by Kennedy Space Center fire personnel,” read the NASA statement.

The space agency said engineers are now analysing the test data. “Failures such as these were anticipated prior to the test and are part of the development process for any complex spaceflight hardware. What we learn from these tests will help us build the best possible system in the future.”

The vehicle itself, which weighed in at 794 kg, was designed and manufactured at NASA’s Johnson Space Center and at Armadillo Aerospace as a prototype to test new technologies and also to help the space agency try out more leaner, greener engineering development.

According to its homepage, Morpheus was large enough to carry 1,100 pounds of cargo to the moon – such as a humanoid robot, a small rover, or a small laboratory to convert moon dust into oxygen.

Greener space travel?

Apparently, Morpheus would be propelled by liquid oxygen and methane. NASA said such a fuel combination can be stored for longer times in space, compared to other common propellants, such as liquid hydrogen.

Methane and liquid oxygen are apparently much cheaper and safer to operate and test, performing much better than hypergols, another type of fuel often used in spaceflight.

As for methane, the space agency said it can also be made from ice on the moon or Mars.

It claims that around 1,000 pounds of methane are produced on the International Space Station each year and dumped overboard as waste gas, which would be enough to entirely fill the Morpheus lander.

The vehicle itself had arrived at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on 27 July to start three months of tests.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic