Morpheus Lands at Space Center Houston

The unmanned, robotic lander, known as Morpheus, now hangs on display at Space Center Houston as part of its Mission Mars exhibit. The spacecraft is an example of NASA’s process of working through failures in order to develop technology that is able to be integrated into future vehicles.

The NASA's Morpheus robotic lander on display at Space Center Houston

You hear a lot about NASA’s Orion spacecraft that will one day take astronauts to Mars, and the rocket that is going to launch it, but you might not be as familiar with Morpheus even though a vehicle capable of landing on another planet is an integral part of a Mars mission. Now that Morpheus has been added to the exhibit, guests can get a complete picture of the technology necessary for human space exploration. 

Any mission to Mars is going to need a lander than can get a crew safely onto the planet, and off again. It’s also going to need to be both cost effective and as sustainable as possible, given the energy necessary to launch items off Earth and into space.

One of the main objectives of the mission was a lander that could operate on methane, which is lighter than other fuels and could potentially be found on other environments. ‘It’s likely that we will be able to mine methane on Mars, meaning we have to take less fuel on a Mars mission where astronauts would need to come back to Earth.’ Carmina Mortillaro, Exhibits Specialist at SCH, told us.

Even more significant was testing the primary payload, the Autonomous Landing Hazard Avoidance Tech, or ALHAT, which made vertical landing and takeoff possible on a rocky surface. ALHAT was key tech in development that could scan the ground for hazards in order to find the safest place possible that was still near the target landing site.
ALHAT makes possible vertical landing on planetary surfaces that could be littered with rocks and boulders.

‘ALHAT is key to going to a place like Mars because it can get astronauts closer to the where the science is. Otherwise they have to walk and take a rover, so this brings the complexity of the mission down- as well as the cost of the mission.’ Mortillaro said.  

Before Morpheus came to Space Center Houston it was tested at Johnson Space Center’s vertical testbed flight complex (VTB), within sight of SCH, and vacuum chambers, as well as other NASA centers. Testing the lander wasn’t always successful, but the crashes and failed design elements and technology gave engineers and scientists the chance to flesh out issues that could one day be used on an unmanned or manned landing vehicle.

Coincidentally, the traveling summer exhibit, Above and Beyond, includes a display on Project Morpheus that shows just what the process of success from failures looks likes.
Project Morpheus in the Above and Beyond exhibit at Space Center Houston

The end result is the Morpheus lander which proved its ability to  perform vertical takeoff and landings while avoiding hazards.

Space Center Houston’s Mission Mars exhibit is designed to give you the chance to learn about, and experience, the technologies and physical limitations that scientists and engineers are faced with overcoming in order to send astronauts to Mars.

Mission Mars exhibit at Space Center Houston

Strap into a simulated Orion capsule to experience a launch sequence for yourself, and then check out the real thing. The exhibit includes a research model of Orion that was used by engineers at Johnson Space Center as they worked out design elements and ergonomic features.

Also on display are three Martian meteorites, one available to touch, which are extremely rare.  

The lander is now part of the overall Mission Mars exhibit and will remain on display at Space Center Houston. It's displayed with the same nozzle that was used when the lander's methane propulsion system was tested in a vacuum chamber for the first time at Johnson Space Center.

“Morpheus was developed at Johnson Space Center” said Mortillaro. “We were able to work directly with the engineers and designers of this vehicle in order to get the real thing here.”
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