NASA's Morpheus Lander Crashes And Burns During Test Flight

By Max Eddy on August 9, 2012 6:23 PM EDT

Morpheus Lander
Pictured here in 2011, the Morpheus Lander is an autonomous craft designed to take off and land vertically. (Photo: Flickr / Project Morpheus)

Just days after NASA celebrated the successful landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars, one of the most technically complex operations in the space agency's history, its Morpheus test lander crashed and burned at the Kennedy Space Center.

The crash occurred during the lander's first untethered test flight. The test began normally, with the lander lifting swiftly up from the ground, until it suddenly flipped over and fell back to Earth. After crashing, the lander caught fire, causing one of its liquid oxygen tanks to burst.

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Space.com quotes from a NASA statement which pinned the cause of the crash on a "hardware component failure."

Designed to take off and land vertically, Morpheus is a testbed for several key technologies including integrated landing, guidance, and navigation systems. Notably, Morpheus also uses the Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology, which allows Morpheus to safely land on its own.

Another key technology of Morpheus was its fuel source. Instead of relying on liquid hydrogen, the craft burns liquid oxygen and methane, which is cheap, safe, and easier to store in space. This last point is key, as it could allow for refueling the lander in space and continuous operation without returning to Earth.

NASA also notes that methane can be manufactured from ice on the moon or Mars, and is actually produced as a by product by the International Space Station. The ISS apparently dumps about a 1,000 pounds of methane per year, which would be enough to fill Morpheus' fuel tanks.

According to the Morpheus website, the lander would be capable of carrying about 1,100 pounds of cargo to the moon.

The loss of the lander is particularly disappointing not only because of the technologies involved, but because it completed a successful flight on August 3. Though this flight was tethered, it bode well for the lander's first solo flight. However, the first attempt was scrubbed due to an auto shutdown on August 7.

After today's disastrous test, the Morpheus Twitter account promised more information would follow.

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