2018 Was Busy Year for Suborbital Flight Tests

SpaceShipTwo fires its hybrid engine. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Part 2 of 2

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

There were 15 flight tests of eight suborbital boosters in 2018, including six flights of two vehicles — Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and Blue Origin’s New Shepard — that are designed to carry passengers on space tourism rides.

The race to provide launch services to the booming small satellite industry also resulted in nine flight tests of six more conventional boosters to test technologies for orbital systems. Two of the boosters tested are designed to serve the suborbital market as well.

A pair of Chinese startups took advantage of a loosening of government restrictions on launch providers to fly their rockets two times apiece. There was also suborbital flight tests of American, Japanese and South Korean rockets.

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NASA Developing Flying Drones for Other Worlds

A prototype built to test Extreme Access Flyer systems in different environments. (Credits: NASA/Swamp Works)
A prototype built to test Extreme Access Flyer systems in different environments. (Credits: NASA/Swamp Works)

By Steven Siceloff
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center

Swamp Works engineers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida are inventing a flying robotic vehicle that can gather samples on other worlds in places inaccessible to rovers. The vehicles – similar to quad-copters but designed for the thin atmosphere of Mars and the airless voids of asteroids and the moon – would use a lander as a base to replenish batteries and propellants between flights.

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NASA’s STMD Helps Pave the Way to Mars

During its first free flight test at night, Morpheus (a Human Exploration and Operations MD project) tests NASA's ALHAT and an engine that runs on liquid oxygen and methane, which are green propellants. These capabilities could be used in the future to deliver cargo to planetary surfaces. (Credit: NASA)
During its first free flight test at night, Morpheus (a Human Exploration and Operations MD project) tests NASA’s ALHAT and an engine that runs on liquid oxygen and methane, which are green propellants. These capabilities could be used in the future to deliver cargo to planetary surfaces. (Credit: NASA)

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) is paving the way for future Mars exploration. The directorate is currently investing in and developing bold, disruptive technology required for future deep-space missions. This critical work leads a concerted effort throughout the agency, including at the program level and across multiple centers, as well as with partners in American industry.

“NASA remains committed to developing the critical technologies required to enable future exploration missions beyond low Earth orbit,” said Michael Gazarik, associate administrator for STMD. “Within STMD, we are focusing on creating advanced technologies that could lead to entirely new approaches for the needs of the agency’s future space missions, especially on Mars.”

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Watch Morpheus Make a Night Flight

Video Caption: The first free-flight test of the Morpheus prototype lander at night was conducted May 28 at the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The 98-second test began at 10:02 p.m. EDT with the Morpheus lander launching from the ground over a flame trench and ascending more than 800 feet.

The vehicle relied on its autonomous landing and hazard avoidance technology sensors to survey the hazard field and determine safe landing sites. Morpheus then flew forward and downward covering approximately 1,300 feet while performing a 78-foot divert to simulate a hazard avoidance maneuver. The lander descended and landed on a dedicated pad inside the test field.

Awesome Video of Morpheus’ Fifth Flight

Video Caption: The fifth free-flight test of a Morpheus prototype lander was conducted Feb. 10, 2014, at NASA Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility.

The 74-second test began around 1 p.m. EST with the Morpheus lander launching from the ground over a flame trench and ascending at 42 feet per second to 467 feet, more than 160 feet higher than its last test. Morpheus then flew forward, covering 637 feet in 30 seconds before descending and landing on a dedicated pad inside the automated landing and hazard avoidance technology (ALHAT) hazard field. Morpheus landed on target.

There is one more test planned before the ALHAT system is installed on the vehicle, but the date of that flight has not yet been set. Morpheus tests NASA’s automated landing and hazard avoidance technology and an engine that runs on liquid oxygen and methane, or “green” propellants.

Cool Morpheus Free Flight Video

Video Caption: The third free flight of a Morpheus prototype lander was conducted Jan. 16, 2014 at the north end of the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The 57-second test began at 1:15 p.m. EST with the Morpheus lander launching from the ground over a flame trench and ascending about 187 feet. The lander then flew forward, covering about 154 feet in 20 seconds before descending and landing on a dedicated landing pad inside the autonomous landing and hazard avoidance technology (ALHAT) hazard field.

Morpheus landed within 11 inches of its target. Project Morpheus tests NASA automated landing and hazard avoidance technology and an engine that runs on liquid oxygen and methane, or “green” propellants. These new capabilities could be used in future efforts to deliver cargo to planetary surfaces. For more information, visit http://www.nasa.gov/centers/johnson/e….

Watch Morpheus Vehicle Fly

Video Caption: Morpheus Bravo vehicle executed a successful tether test on August 7, 2013 at Johnson Space Center. The combined Morpheus/JPL team met all test objectives including engine ignition, ascent, a 3 meter lateral translation over simulated Mars soil provided by JPL to help them with a plume study, 40 seconds of hover at the apex, and a slant descent to “landing” using free flight guidance. The entire flight duration was ~80 seconds. All though the Mars soil simulant is not typical for Morpheus test fires, it sure made for a spectacular show!

Morpheus is Back — for the Sequel

The Morpheus vehicle. (Credit: Kris Kehea)
The Morpheus vehicle. (Credit: Kris Kehea)

JOHNSON SPACE CENTER, TX (NASA PR) — The roar of a 5,000 pound rocket engine has returned to the Johnson Space Center. The Morpheus team has completed the build-up of our “Bravo” vehicle, conducted numerous integrated tests, and has now stepped into our flight test program. We are picking up where we left off – in fact we never stopped working.

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Spectacular Video: Morpheus Crashes and Burns in Test Flight

Video Caption: The first free flight of Nasa JSC’s Morpheus LOX-Methane vertical takeoff, vertical landing rocket vehicle. It appears to have had a guidance failure. The heat of the methane burning then burst a LOX tank. The flight was at KSC.

Morpheus Sets World on Fire….Literally!

Rocket scientists at Johnson Space Center conducted a successful test of Morpheus yesterday. Unfortunately, it had a bad side effect….

We didn’t start the fire, it was always burning since….No, wait. We did.

No one was injured in the grass fire.

Video: Morpheus Test Flight

Video Caption: Another tethered test of the Morpheus vertical test bed. This flight was on Innovation Day at Johnson Space Center. We had around 300 onlookers during this test. This test looked better than yesterday. We now have lots of good test data. The next test will be even better. Test… Iterate… Test Again..

Video: Morpheus’ Wild Ride

Video Caption: Today the Morpheus team attempted a hover test under tether. This test was the next incremental step in a series of planned tests leading to free flight. Among previous tests were component tests, subsystem tests, integrated vehicle tests, and in the last week successful strap down engine ignition and firing tests. The particular test today was intended to demonstrate a 40 second engine firing while maintaining altitude of five feet above the tether point. Shortly after ignition the vehicle pitched over and control authority was lost. The multiple redundant thrust termination system (a precursor to the flight termination system) executed and aborted the test. The test team then executed all nominal and contingency procedures required to safe the vehicle. All ground crew had been evacuated to 1000ft well before the test, per procedure.

The team is examining the on-board data and the vehicle hardware to assess the issue or issues as well as reviewing ground procedures. There are a number of ideas and theories but first reports are usually wrong so we won’t speculate yet. The vehicle appears to be in good condition and only minor damage to some ground wire and hardware was experienced.

Engineers Plan Morpheus Engine Firing Today

The Morpheus vehicle. (Credit: Kris Kehea)

Engineers at NASA Johnson Space Center will attempt an engine firing for its Morpheus vehicle today. The vehicle is attached to a crane. NASA’ description of the project follows:

Morpheus is an all NASA designed vehicle. It was manufactured and assembled on-sight and at Armadillo Aerospace and was transported to JSC in January of this year. Morpheus is comparable in size to the Altair ascent stage and represents a full scale vehicle that would be capable of landing Robonaut or a similar sized payload to the lunar surface, performing all propellant burns after the trans lunar injection.

The primary focus of the test bed is to demonstrate an integrated propulsion and GN&C 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. Additional objectives include technology demonstrations including tank material and manufacture, reaction control thrusters, main engine performance improvements, Helium pressurization systems, ground operations, flight operations, range safety, software and avionics architecture.

It is a full spacecraft and has all the associated subsystems: avionics, software, GN&C, power, power distribution, structures, propulsion, and instrumentation. Almost every organization at JSC has contributed, support organizations were included and brought into the team purposely from the inception.