NASA's Morpheus moon lander crashes and burns

The experimental "green" lander fell to the ground in a ball of flames at Kennedy Space Center today. No one was injured, and NASA said the accident was caused by a hardware failure.

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While the world is still basking in the glow of NASA's successful landing of its Curiosity rover on Mars, a flight of the space agency's experimental Morpheus lander had a much more unfortunate ending today.

According to Space.com, the lander crashed and burned at Kennedy Space Center this afternoon after its first free-flight test went badly awry.

"The @MorpheusLander experienced a failure, causing it to catch fire," NASA tweeted. "No one was injured. Information will be released as soon as possible."

But Space.com added that in a statement, NASA said that, "During today's free-flight test of the Project Morpheus vehicle, it lifted off the ground and then experienced a hardware component failure, which prevented it from maintaining stable flight."

NASA's Morpheus lander burns after crashing just after its first free-flight test today, at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Screen shot by CNET

Here's a description of the lander from the official Project Morpheus site:

Morpheus is a vertical test bed demonstrating new green propellant propulsion systems and autonomous landing and hazard detection technology. Designed, developed, manufactured and operated in-house by engineers at NASA's Johnson Space Center, the Morpheus Project represents not only a vehicle to advance technologies, but also an opportunity to try out "lean development" engineering practices....

Morpheus is large enough to carry 1,100 pounds of cargo to the moon -- for example, a humanoid robot, a small rover, or a small laboratory to convert moon dust into oxygen -- performing all propellant burns after the trans lunar injection. The primary focus of the test bed is to demonstrate an integrated propulsion and guidance, navigation and control system that can fly a lunar descent profile to exercise the Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology (ALHAT) safe landing sensors and closed-loop flight control.

The NASA Morpheus Lander, seen at Kennedy Space Center's hazard field. NASA

Morpheus uses a combination of liquid oxygen and methane, which NASA said is valuable because the propellant can be stored for longer durations in space than other often-used fuels like liquid hydrogen.

But NASA also claims that the propellant combination is extremely cheap and safe to operate and test, and performs better -- much more so than hypergols, another type of fuel often used in spaceflight."

However, today's crash may force the space agency to re-evaluate that claim.

 

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