(Sen) - NASA's prototype lander, called "Mighty Eagle", had a successful untethered test flight at the space agency's Marshall Space Flight Center on August 16. The vehicle used its onboard camera to find its landing site and its automated controls to hover, move sideways and descend safely.
The small robotic lander is a test-bed for a vehicle that could land autonomously on the Moon, asteroids or other places to be explored in the Solar System. The successful test comes a week after another of NASA's prototype landers, Morpheus, crash landed during a test at the Kennedy space Center.
During the 'free' flight - not tethered to a crane - the lander hovered at an altitude of about 30 feet, identified its target landing site 21 feet away, moved sideways and descended safely. The test flight lasted 32 seconds.
The Mighty Eagle lead engineer Dr Greg Chavers, commented: "This test-bed is a small, low-cost project that will help NASA mature technologies needed to meet future robotic science and exploration goals. What we learn here will help decision-makers map out what's needed to make landing missions possible."
Mike Hannan, a control engineer at Marshall, said "This is huge. We met our primary objective of this test series - getting the vehicle to seek and find its target autonomously with high precision. We're not directing the vehicle from the control room. Our software is driving the vehicle to think for itself now. From here, we'll test the robustness of the software to fly higher and descend faster, expecting the lander to continue to seek and find the target."
This was the second free flight, the Mighty Eagle having successfully undertaken its first untethered test flight on August 8 when the vehicle lifted off, hovered at 30 feet before moving sideways. It looked for its target and safely landed on the launchpad. The video of the August 8 test flight is shown below:
Video credit: NASA/MSFC
The Mighty Eagle has three legs and measures 4 feet tall and 8 feet in diameter. The lander is fuelled mainly by pure hydrogen peroxide. It has thrusters to control its landing which are operated by the onboard computer.
Marshall Center engineers Logan Kennedy, right, and Adam Lacock check out the lander prototype, dubbed the "Mighty Eagle." Credit: NASA/MSFC/Fred Deaton
The prototype has had 25 successful test flights during 2011 and 2012 so far and further tests are scheduled for September where the vehicle should reach altitudes of up to 100 feet.
The Mighty Eagle is being developed by a team at the Marshall Space Flight Center and by a team at the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.