Friday, May 23, 2014

Project Morpheus redefines autonomous landing

     KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla — Project Morpheus is looking to make history after years of development, testing, and setbacks, to become NASA’s first fully autonomous landing vehicle. Consisting of the Morpheus Lander, a relatively low-cost launch vehicle, equipped with the Autonomous Landing Hazard Avoidance Technology (ALHAT) control system, which is described by NASA engineers as being the most sophisticated hazard detection system ever assembled. NASA showed off the test article on Wednesday, May 21.

     “What we’re trying to do is buy down that technology risk for future programs, so they can take already demonstrated capabilities and infuse them into their missions,” said Morpheus project manager Jon Olansen.

(Click above to watch video)
(Produced by James Tutten)

     This project has also witnessed setbacks. The“Alpha” version of the Morpheus Lander was being test-flown at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) back in August of 2012 after carrying out a number of flight tests at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston when the project encountered just such a setback. The second free-flight test of the vehicle ended in a malfunction that caused Morpheus to crash shortly after takeoff and resulted in two separate explosive events and a fire. The cause of the failure was traced back to an issue resulting in the loss of the Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) signal, which controls in-flight orientation and velocity of the launch vehicle as part of the integrated navigation system.

     Though the vehicle was a complete loss, it was so early into the project that many of the high-priced components were not fully integrated. One of the mission goals for Morpheus is to test and test often, and along the way increase the understanding of this type of lander and how the technology behaves in-flight.

     Morpheus has undergone some 58 development tests; 34 of which have been tethered flight-tests, 12 hot-fire tests where the vehicle is secured to the ground, and 12 free-flight tests.

     Throughout the ground takeoff and landing tests that have occurred over the last six months, Morpheus has been pushed to an ever increasing height and range requirement for its flight plan. Starting with a height of 23 feet (seven meters) and a range of 10 feet (three meters), to the last three tests with the ALHAT system onboard taking the craft to an altitude of 804 feet (245 meters) and a range distance just over a quarter mile (407 meters).

     After a string of 11 successful free-flight tests including multiple launches on a single day, project managers are now ready to take this experimental project to its next big development leap on Thursday, May 22.

     Thursday’s flight test will not only integrate the more advanced ALHAT components, but will also be the first closed-loop flight, which means ALHAT will use its collection of sensors and flight control systems to autonomously navigate the vehicle to find and softly touchdown at a safe landing site within a specially designed “hazard field.”

     This 100 meters squared testing area located at the northern end of the Shuttle Landing Facility is specifically modeled to match an area of the Moon’s south pole, and consists of 24 craters of various sizes, several sloping corners, and hundreds of jagged rock formations.

     Future missions will require vehicles to land in areas near resources like polar ice caps that are typically more hazardous than the flat terrain sites utilized on most missions. For example, if Morpheus lands near the polar ice on Mars it can use harvested ice to combine liquid water with carbon dioxide to create methane, and produce additional fuel for departing spacecraft.

     Project Morpheus is testing a non-toxic propellant comprised of a mixture of liquid oxygen (LOX) and liquid methane. This fuel is considered environmentally friendly and offers similar performance to the standard LOX/hydrogen mixture used by many current launch vehicles. Methane is easier to store, safer to handle, less likely to dissipate over time, and cheaper to produce. A major component of Project Morpheus is to provide more information on this LOX/methane for use on future missions.

     “The technology has developed and progressed very well, we’ve had excellent engineers from Langley, JPL, JSC, and Draper (Charles Stark Draper Labs) who have helped us along,” said Chirold Epp, a JSC project manager for ALHAT. “They gave us the original charter and basically said ‘go learn how to do this, because nobody has ever done it before.’”

     The Morpheus Lander does not currently have any missions planned upon the completion of its testing at KSC. But there is some interest for the use of ALHAT technology in future missions by other projects including NASA’s asteroid initiative and the Mars 2020 mission.

By James Tutten

(Above photo provided by Charles Z. Muller / SpaceFlight Insider)

(Published at on May 23, 2014.)

Technicians and engineers prepare NASA's Project Morpheus prototype lander for free-flight test. Photo Credit: NASA

Monday, May 19, 2014

'Home Free!' comes to Orlando Fringe Festival

     ORLANDO — One of the original Off-Off-Broadway productions from the 1960s, “Home Free!,” is set to be performed this week at the 2014 Orlando Fringe Festival. This short one-act play with more questions than answers will leave theatergoers reflecting on the concept of having a happy home when things are far from normal.

     “It’s a play about fear holding you back, fear that can stop you in your tracks and from taking action,” said director Julia Gagne. When Gagne started to look for a short play that fit into the Fringe style, she remembered “Home Free!” from her time as an undergraduate and as part of the script analysis classes she taught at Valencia College.

     This show consists of two main characters, Lawrence played by Zach Lane and Joanna played by Cameron Gagne. The two are young lovers expecting a child, even though they also claim to be brother and sister.

     Lawrence has several odd personality issues that include fearing the outside world and spending his time talking with two imaginary children named Edna and Claypone. He is bright and inventive, but lacks social skills or any real drive or ambition due to his crippling agoraphobia.

     Where most people say opposites attract, Joanna appears nearly as crazy as Lawrence. She does have the ability to leave the home, but embodies her own strange behaviors as times. It’s not clear if she’s just egging Lawrence on as she plays games to taunt and tease him and tell fantastical stories of the outside world.

     Lane’s performance of Lawrence is full of energy and believable, despite the unbelievable way his character behaves. Gagne gives another stellar performance for Joanna considering all the ambiguous motives and actions she undergoes.

     What's eventually made clear is this strange living situation is coming to an end, and this time it becomes a matter life or death. Though things can be odd at times during this play, the actions of both actors brilliantly encapsulate the minds of the characters in the most sincere way.

     “Home Free!” will be performed at the Orlando Fringe Festival’s Black Venue located at 511 Virginia Drive. Shows will be held in the evening at different times for the last six days of the festival on May 20 at 7:30, May 21 at 6, May 22 at 9, May 23 at 7:30, May 24 at 2:30, and May 25 at 6.

     Show tickets are $8 at the door with a Fringe button, and can also be purchased in advance at

By James Tutten

(Photos by Yvette Waters Photography.)

Zach Lane and Cameron Gagne perform a tech rehearsal for their upcoming show "Home Free!"

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Officials looking into Space Station power failure

     Flight controllers working on Earth for the International Space Station (ISS) are investigating a power failure that occurred in the space station’s 3A power channel on Thursday, May 8. NASA officials have stated that the power issue will not impact the departure of the Expedition 39 crewmembers on Tuesday, May 13. The space agency also stated that the issue poses no danger to either the crew or the station.

     The 3A power channel that experienced the technical issue runs power to the orbiting laboratory via its connection to the solar arrays attached to the S3/S4 truss assemblies. Astronauts aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis installed this truss section back in June of 2007 as part of mission STS-117.

     Power was seamlessly converted for most of the systems from this faulty 3A power channel to the 3B channel, which is currently working as a backup without any apparent issues. Ground crews are also assessing impacts that may arise from this transfer in power such as backup heater power for the station’s external robotic system.

     ISS is now running on seven of its eight remaining power channels and all systems are currently operational. Expedition 39/40 crewmembers are working normally on planned payload operations in preparation for the upcoming Soyuz undocking and departure, as ISS Mission Control located in Houston, Texas looks into what caused this failure and how to possibly fix it.

     Current commander, Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Koichi Wakata, NASA astronaut Richard Masracchio, and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin will depart from the ISS after spending half a year in orbit. NASA astronaut Steven Swanson will officially take command of the ISS. It could then fall on him and the other members of the Expedition 40 crew to resolve this problem.

     Elements of the ISS have been on orbit for sixteen years, with the first two segments arriving on orbit aboard a Russian Proton rocket and Space Shuttle Endeavour on mission STS-88. The space station recently saw its operational life extended through 2024. In the past year, several issues have cropped up with among other things, the space station’s coolant system as well as its Multiplexer/Demultiplexer (MDM).

By James Tutten

(Above photo provided by NASA)

(Published at on May 10, 2014.)

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

NASA completes ‘cold-shock’ tests for SLS engine

     Engineers working at NASA’s Stennis Space Center (SSC) in Mississippi have successfully completed a cold-shock test on structural piping for the facility’s newly renovated A-1 Test Stand on May 1. This is a critical project milestone leading up to scheduled testing of the RS-25 rocket engine that is planned for use on NASA’s new heavy-lift booster – the Space Launch System (SLS).

     “This is a very exciting time at NASA,” said Gary Benton, RS-25 rocket engine test project manager, in a statement released by NASA. “We are moving closer and closer to making unprecedented space exploration missions a reality.”

(Click above to watch NASA video)

     The liquid fuels that power this engine will be pumped through a complex system of pipes at extremely cold temperatures. The RS-25 engine generates thrust by combining liquid oxygen around -300 degrees Fahrenheit, with liquid hydrogen colder than -400 degrees Fahrenheit. NASA engineers “cold-shock” tested the piping system by monitoring the effects of liquid nitrogen flowing through the piping at -320 degrees Fahrenheit.

     “We’re pleased with how the “cold shock” tests of the modified Liquid Hydrogen (LH2) and Liquid Oxygen (LOX) piping systems at Stennis turned out. All of this is leading toward the testing of the RS-25. To that end, the AR test article team has been steadily finalizing drawings, specifications, and planning documents that will be used to install, checkout, test and process the engine for the first test scheduled in July,” said Jack Fabre, RS-25 Test Article Integration at Aerojet Rocketdyne.

     The piping system must be built to handle extreme cold and hot temperatures that shift as much as 500 degrees during final “hotfire” testing. To allow for this change, the piping is designed to move as it expands and contracts, with data being evaluated along the way to ensure project safety while looking for any needed adjustments.

     Modifications to this testing facility have been ongoing since last fall, which involved the installation of new equipment and components to prepare for the RS-25 engine. The first RS-25 engine to be tested at the A-1 Test Stand is scheduled for delivery by early summer.

     “A test like this may sound benign since no flammable propellant is used, but it is very significant to make sure we have the proper piping design and setup for engine testing,” said Jeff Henderson, A-1 Test Stand director, in a statement released by NASA.

     Along with the cold-shock testing came calibrations on a new thrust measurement system (TMS), which will be used to obtain accurate engine thrust information, and performing checks on the liquid oxygen tank and vent system. More components for the TMS still need to be installed before testing can begin on the soon-to-be-delivered and installed RS-25 engine.

     The RS-25 engine comes with an integrated computer known as the Main Engine Controller (MEC), which regulates the functions of the combustion system and monitors its performance. Not only does this control the valves that flow the liquid propellant, but also keeps track of vital systems during the startup ignition, firing, and shutdown sequences. Engineers at Stennis will collect data during all of these key phases, and ensure not only system power but also reliability.

     Reliability is a big part of the RS-25 engine’s past, with its long use as the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) starting with the very first space shuttle flight STS-1 on April 12, 1981. Several upgrades were made to improve efficiency during its 30 years with the Space Shuttle program, with former manufacture Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne reporting a 99.95 percent reliability rate. Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne merged with Aerojet last year to form Aerojet Rocketdyne based in Sacramento, California, a new company leading the future development of RS-25 engines along with other engine products.

     The eventual goal of the RS-25 rocket engine will be to power the core stage of NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift booster. SLS is the primary launch vehicle that makes up the new exploration mission for NASA, with planned missions beyond low-Earth Orbit (LEO) that include studying a captured near-Earth asteroid (which will be towed into lunar orbit) and eventually, one day, landing on and exploring the planet Mars.

     The first launch of SLS is planned for late 2017, so long as testing and development phases continue to run as planned. This will be an unmanned flight. In 2021, NASA plans a crewed flight of the massive rocket. In the intervening years NASA will test out and validate a number of systems relating to the rocket.

By James Tutten

(Above photo provided by NASA)

(Published at on May 7, 2014.)

A-1 Test Stand Operations team member during cold-shock test. Photo Credit: NASA

RS-25's await trasport at Kennedy Space Center to Stennis in 2011. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

NASA looks to revolutionize new oxygen systems

     NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate is looking for new ways to clear the air on long-duration spaceflight missions in the future. The Game Change Development Program (GCD) recently announced an open competition to greatly refine the process of next-gen oxygen scrubbers, with efficiency and effectiveness as a top priority.

     “Lengthy spaceflight missions in Earth’s orbit and beyond must have life support systems that are more self-sufficient and reliable,” said Michael Gazarik, associate administrator for Space Technology at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “The spacecraft life support system technologies for this proposal must significantly improve the rate of oxygen recovery while achieving high degrees reliability. NASA and its partners will need to develop new technologies to ‘close’ the atmosphere revitalization loop.”

ISS Air Revitalization System rack. Photo Credit: NASA
     This NASA solicitation will be judged and organized around two primary phases for all those interested in submitting their ideas. All oxygen recovery concepts must have detailed design, development, fabrication, and testing to be considered for the preliminary phase. If this criteria is met, proposers will begin a two-year development period for phase two, where they will develop their own hardware prototype that must be capable of at least 75 percent oxygen recovery from an enclosed spacecraft environment, states a NASA release on the subject.

     In addition to this recovery rate; hardware designs must also decrease the size and weight compared to currently implemented technology, and the entire system must also use less power while completing this vital process.

     NASA’s GCD has stated that proposals for this design and development venture will be accepted from: “NASA centers, other government agencies, federally funded research and development centers, educational institutions, industry and nonprofit organizations.”

     Approximately six submissions will be considered eligible for a prize reward of $750,000 through the first phase of this technology competition.

     The International Space Station (ISS) uses a number of methods to stabilize its atmosphere through the Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS). This includes Carbon Dioxide (CO2) scrubbers, emergency bottled-oxygen tanks, and several devices like the Oxygen Generating System (OGS) which chemically separates water reserves to create oxygen and hydrogen through electrolysis, similar to devices used on modern submarines.

     This represent one of the many challenges that long-duration spaceflight mission pose on future astronauts. Program managers at NASA’s Langley Research Center that oversee submissions through GCD hope to find revolutionary solutions and drive technological innovations with outreach challenges like this and others planned for the future.

     As the name suggests, proposals are encouraged to be “game changing” in their design and implementation of new ideas and components, while also maintaining a concept considered practicable and affordable.

     Other examples of GCD projects include the Human-Robotic Systems (HRS), Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC), Soldier Warfighter Operationally Responsive Deployer for Space (SWORDS), and the Advanced Radiation Protection (ARP).

     The Space Technology Mission Directorate website states that: “The nation’s investments in space technology enable NASA to make a difference in the world around us. The Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) is responsible for developing the crosscutting, pioneering, new technologies and capabilities needed by the agency to achieve its current and future missions.”

     “Research and technology development takes place within NASA Centers, in academia and industry, and leverages partnerships with other government agencies and international partners. STMD engages and inspires thousands of technologists and innovators creating a community of our best and brightest working on the nation’s toughest challenges.”

By James Tutten

(Above photo provided by NASA)

(Published at on May 1, 2014.)

NASA astronaut, Karen Nyberg, enjoys the view from the Cupola of the International Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA

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