September 03, 2012
Credit: Credit: NASA/Lauren Harnett
Early Aug. 6, NASA's Curiosity rover—the centerpiece of a $2.5 billion flagship mission—raced across the Martian sky, undergoing a half-dozen rapid-fire changes in configuration before an untried “Sky Crane” landing system paused just above the terrain to lower the one-metric-ton robot geologist to the surface.
Three days later, Morpheus, an unpiloted NASA prototype for a multimission planetary lander, crashed moments after lifting off from a simulated lunar landscape at the Kennedy Space Center. (Morpheus is seen above during a March 13 tether test.)
At the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., Curiosity's control team received well-deserved praise from President Barack Obama following the rover's breathtaking arrival. Pop culture exploded with new personalities, including the Mohawk scientist, from JPL's boisterous but failure-weary control room.
In Florida, the Morpheus team stepped back from their charred wreckage. In relative obscurity, they vowed to regroup at their Johnson Space Center base in Texas, assemble a replacement and return to Florida to finish their work: an ambitious pairing of Morpheus with the equally cutting-edge Autonomous Landing and Hazardous Avoidance Technology (Alhat).
As envisioned, Morpheus, working in concert with the light-detection and ranging-based Alhat, could autonomously steer a payload more massive than Curiosity to an alien terrain by skimming along at low altitude, dodging boulders and crater rims as it navigates its own course to a propulsive touchdown within a few meters of its target.
Cost so far? $7 million over 2.5 years.
White House “attaboys” and new cult personalities? None, yet.