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NASA's Morpheus flies for the first time with ALHAT automatic navigation system

NASA (public domain)

A Thursday story in Florida Today reported that the latest test flight of the Morpheus, a prototype built by NASA to test new landing technologies, met with complete success. The vehicle rose 800 feet off of the old shuttle landing runway at the Kennedy Space Center and then landed at a simulated lunar landscape. For the first time, however, the ALHAT (Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology) took control of the vehicle and guided it to a landing site a quarter of a mile from where it took off.

The ALHAT used a serious of lasers to map the simulated lunar landscape, which was filled with craters, boulders, and other hazards and guided the Morpheus to a flat, concrete circle. In previous flights, the ALHAT system had been switched on, but the Morpheus had been guided in a predetermined course using a GPS system. The same system could have taken over had the ALHAT failed, but this proved to be unnecessary.

Morpheus has tested not only the ALHAT, but a new landing engine using methane as fuel. Both technologies could be used in future vehicles that would land on the moon, Mars, and other planetary surfaces. Future landers will be able to touch down on another world automatically without human intervention, an important consideration for distant objectives such as Mars or the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. The communications time lag to such destinations is too great for real time control from Earth.

The Morpheus has one more test to perform before its program is over. Next week it will perform the same test flight as it accomplished today, but at nine o’clock in the evening. That will be a second test of the ALHAT that will confirm that it can work at night as well as in the day time. To show how important ALHAT can prove, had the Apollo 11 lunar lander had one installed, Neil Armstrong would not have had to take manual control with a minute amount of fuel to spare.