UPDATE 1-NASA's Morpheus lander in fiery crash at Cape Canaveral

Fri Aug 10, 2012 8:12am IST

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* Prototype NASA landing vehicle goes up in smoke

* Engineers still looking into cause of fiery accident

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Aug 9 (Reuters) - A small NASA lander being tested for missions to the moon and other destinations beyond Earth crashed and burned after veering off course during a trial run at the Kennedy Space Center on Thursday, officials with the U.S. space agency said.

There were no injuries after the prototype, known as Morpheus, burst into flames near the runway formerly used by NASA's space shuttles.

The insect-like vehicle, designed and built by engineers at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, had made several flights attached to a crane before Thursday's attempted free-flight.

Morpheus' engines, which burn liquid oxygen and methane, appeared to ignite as planned, lifting the 1,750-pound (794 kg) vehicle into the air. But a few seconds later, Morpheus rolled over on its side and plummeted to the ground.

NASA video showed the vehicle engulfed in flames and then rocked by a spectacular explosion, presumably due to the fuel tanks rupturing.

“"Failures such as these were anticipated prior to the test, and are part of the development process for any complex spaceflight hardware," NASA said in a statement.

An investigation is under way, the statement added.

Project Morpheus began in partnership with privately owned Armadillo Aerospace, which is developing re-usable, suborbital vehicles that take off and land vertically.

NASA, which has spent about $7 million on the project over the past 2-1/2 years, is interested in developing technologies that could be used to fly cargo to the moon and other future missions beyond Earth orbit.

Project Morpheus was an example of what the former project manager called "“Home Depot engineering" - low-budget projects that use existing resources and partner with non-traditional aerospace companies.

“"The Morpheus lander is kind of our poster child. It's one of our first attempts to do these kinds of projects," former project manager Matt Ondler said in an interview with Reuters last year.

“"Instead of building some elaborate test structure, you go to Home Depot and build something very quickly that gets you 80 percent of the answer and allows you to keep moving forward," he said.

Morpheus arrived at Florida's seaside space center in July for three months of increasingly rigorous test flights, including automated landings in a mock moonscape, complete with craters and boulders.

The lander was designed to deliver about 1,100 pounds (500 kg) of cargo to the moon, NASA said on its Project Morpheus website.

Technologies being developed include a propulsion system that uses liquid oxygen and methane -- green fuels that could be manufactured on other planetary bodies, NASA said.

The accident happened as NASA scientists were still hailing the Mars rover Curiosity's descent and landing on the Red Planet earlier this week as a "“miracle of engineering."

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Comments (2)
Tim_Miltz wrote:
I have argued that using plutonium was irresponsible of NASA. Considering the track record and that the last time NASA lost a plutonium laden launch vehicle in the upper atmosphere, plutonium was strewn across the planet and tobacco crops had a year of radioactive rain to which who knows how many cases of lunch cancer were spawned. Sure smoking is bad, but plutonium laced tobacco can only escalate problems as plutonium typically leads to lung cancer because it attaches to dust particles, in fact President Clinton acknowledged that over 70,000 people in the US developed lung cancer due to US above ground testing plutonium release.

Had this craft been the Curiosity mission ? I think we all would be realizing how irresponsible and lazy it was of NASA to choose such a high risk energy solution for the rover.

This Morpheus accident should set precedent that NASA never launch plutonium into orbit again, bordering a crime against humanity.

Aug 10, 2012 1:30pm IST  --  Report as abuse
Tim_Miltz wrote:
In the case my former comment was too long and didn’t take.

This Morpheus example should be a reason NASA should never choose plutonium as a source of fuel again in the future. Had this exploded in the upper atmosphere ? It could have been a global catastrophe as any plutonium raining down would be bad. It doesn’t take much plutonium to ruin your day and increase your risk of lung cancer.

Aug 10, 2012 1:32pm IST  --  Report as abuse
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