Just a few days after the Curiosity rover made its heart-stopping descent onto the surface of Mars, another kind of spacecraft drama played out right here on Earth. On August 9, NASA’s experimental “green” landing craft Morpheus made its first unassisted flight at Kennedy Space Center. That endeavor quickly ended with a bang when Morpheus crashed and exploded into flames, but it’s just a bump in the road along NASA’s path to more sustainable forms of space exploration.
Greener Fuel for Next-Generation Spacecraft
The Morpheus project was designed partly as a test bed for new “green” propulsion systems. The propellant for this test, a mixture of liquid oxygen and methane, has a number of advantages over conventional propulsion systems like liquid hydrogen or hypergols (hypergolic fuels tend to be highly toxic).
The methane could be reclaimed from other space operations. And, according to NASA, the International Space Station already produces enough waste methane to provide a full tank for Morpheus. Both methane and oxygen could also be manufactured on other planets during the course of a mission.
The methane-oxygen combination is also very inexpensive, and it has proved to be safer to handle while performing better than conventional propellants.
Reuse, Recycle, Explore Space
Morpheus is also of interest because it represents NASA’s trial of a “lean development” approach to engineering. The entire project was conducted by NASA engineers based on the success of a previous test bed project called Pixel that had tried out the methane-oxygen propellant in unassisted flight.
Pixel was built out of available spare parts from the company Armadillo Aerospace rather than custom-fabricating new parts (Armadillo specializes in reusable spacecraft).
Morpheus is also designed to provide for more functionality while using less hardware. The propulsion system is integrated into its descent and landing systems, and its 1,100 payload could accommodate a small humanoid robot or a rover.
Fittingly, Morpheus was tested at repurposed area of the Kennedy Space Center, the previous Space Shuttle Facility.
One Giant Step for Green Spacecraft
As of this writing, NASA has not identified the precise cause of Morpheus’s failure, except to state that it was a hardware problem and not due to the propellant.
However, NASA already credits Morpheus with providing a gateway to the next generation of low-cost, high-efficiency space exploration:
“The workforce behind Project Morpheus has gained valuable experience that will provide the corner stone for design of future missions. In addition, the project is setting mid-range performance and design requirements that will drive down the production cost of future landers – Project Morpheus is taking the lessons learned from our industry partners to facilitate this alternative design approach.”
NASA is also involved in a number of other sustainability initiatives, including the development of electric aircraft in partnership with Google.
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.