The night sky above NASA’s Kennedy Space Center was quite a spectacular sight on May 28 as NASA’s Morpheus prototype lander was sent over 800 feet (244 meters) into the air, trailed by a jet of brightly colored flames. This free-flight test was the first of its kind, aimed at investigating the capabilities of NASA’s Autonomous Landing Hazard Avoidance Technology (ALHAT) which serves to improve landing on other planets.
Morpheus, a robotic spacecraft designed as a vertical testbed for spacecraft technologies, was launched into the air as part of a 98-second test which successfully demonstrated that NASA can safely land an unmanned spacecraft on rocky surfaces using only ALHAT’s Hazard Detection System as a guide.
The Hazard Detection System uses light detection and ranging (lidar) sensors to locate hazardous obstacles, such as craters or large rocks, in order to guide a spacecraft to a safe spot for touchdown.
During the test, the system aimed its sensor at a lunar-like hazard field located around a quarter mile from the Kennedy Center. It then scanned the area and generated a mosaic of lidar images which were subsequently stitched together to create a 3D map of the landing site. This map was then analyzed by the system in order to pick the safest landing spot and with assistance from the Doppler lidar, which measures the spacecraft’s altitude and velocity, Morpheus successfully alighted in the test field.
“The flash lidar performed very well, and we could clearly identify rocks as small as one foot in size from the largest range that Morpheus could give us, which was approximately a quarter mile,” said Eric Roback, ALHAT flash lidar lead engineer, in a news-release. “With this sensor we could even find the safest landing site in a pitch black crater.”
NASA believes that this system could be used in future ventures to deliver cargo to planetary surfaces. Furthermore, according to Roback, it would allow spacecrafts to land near the most scientifically interesting spots and also near the resources necessary for the colonization of other planets.
Check out this awesome footage of the event released by NASA Kennedy: