As NASA prepared to brief media and the public about the Curiosity rover’s fifth day on Mars, the space agency’s jubilant mood was soured somewhat by news that another of its spacecraft crashed Thursday during a test flight at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
The spider-shaped planetary lander Morpheus, billed as a new “green” type of spacecraft thanks to its environmentally friendly propulsion fuel of methane and liquid oxygen, was barely off the ground before it tilted, crashed to the ground and erupted in flames, NASA said.
The space agency said the lander experienced a hardware component failure—- likely in a part of its GPS navigation system—- which prevented it from maintaining stable flight.
Nobody was hurt in the unmanned experiment, but the lander will likely not be repairable.
NASA has spent $7 million on the Morpheus program. That figure includes parts for a still-to-be-built second lander.
Although NASA said Thursday that “failures such as these were anticipated prior to the test and are part of the development process,” there was no doubt that the crash put a bit of damper on an otherwise jubilant week for the space agency, dominated by good news stories about the successful landing of its Curiosity rover on Mars.
The highlight of the week so far is a colour panoramic image of the Mars landscape taken by a camera mounted on the rover’s mast that was released by NASA Thursday. More images were expected to be shown at Friday’s briefing.
NASA has been giving daily briefings on the rover mission from its Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. To watch Friday’s briefing live, click on the video player that will appear at the top of this story as of 1 p.m. ET.
Morpheus is a prototype for a cheap, environmentally friendly planetary lander that can carry a payload such as a robot, small rover or small scientific laboratories to the moon or other celestial bodies such as asteroids.
It is one of 20 projects that make up NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems Program.
Thursday was the first time Morpheus had been tested untethered in a free flight. It had performed 19 flights at Johnson Space Center in Houston, where it was designed and made, and one more in Florida, but it was always tethered to a crane, NASA spokeswoman Brandi Dean told The Associated Press.
The testing moved from Texas to Florida last week, and Morpheus had a successful tether test last Friday. NASA had planned to run tests for three months. The plan was for flights over a specially created field designed to mimic the surface of the moon, with boulders, rocks, slopes and craters.
The lander was built mostly with low-cost, off-the-shelf materials. It was an attempt by NASA to use cheaper, more readily available rocket fuel that is more environmentally friendly than the toxic rocket fuels it usually uses.
Methane, which is the main component of natural gas, also has other advantages: it can be stored for longer times in space compared to other common rocket propellants, and could be made from ice found on the moon or Mars.
The International Space Station produces – and dumps – enough methane waste gas each year to fill the Morpheus fuel tanks, NASA said.
Morpheus was early in the NASA experimental “test bed” process, and the space agency hadn’t committed to using the lander in any specific flight, NASA officials said.
The space agency has parts and plans to build a second Morpheus lander, Dean said.
“Hopefully, we’ll be testing again before too long,” she said.
Read more from the original source: