During a test at the Kennedy Space Center, NASA said the Morpheus lander experienced a hardware component failure. NBC's Brian Williams reports.
A prototype lander for future moon missions went awry and blew up today during its first free-flight test at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the space agency reported. The $7 million Morpheus lander project is an experiment aimed at testing autonomous navigation systems and other spaceflight technologies.
Morpheus has undergone a series of less ambitious tests, including its first tethered flight at Kennedy Space Center last Friday. During that test, the craft was suspended from a crane on a safety tether. Today's test was aimed at pushing the envelope further by letting the methane-powered craft off its leash.
Video of the test shows the craft rising off its pad, then turning to the side and plunging back down to the ground in flames. Moments later, the entire vehicle explodes.
In a statement, NASA said no one was injured in the blast.
"During today’s free-flight test of the Project Morpheus vehicle lifted off the ground and then experienced a hardware component failure, which prevented it from maintaining stable flight," the space agency said. "No one was injured, and the resulting fire was extinguished by KSC fire personnel. Engineers are looking into the test data, and the agency will release information as it comes available. Failures such as these were anticipated prior to the test and are part of the development process for any complex spaceflight hardware. What we learn from these tests will help us build the best possible system in the future."
Morpheus is one of several comparatively low-cost projects aimed at developing technologies for future spaceflight in the post-shuttle era. The prototype craft was built at Johnson Space Center and at Armadillo Aerospace in Texas. Armadillo is one of the prize winners in the NASA-backed Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, which concluded in 2009.
Just last month the Morpheus prototype was shipped from Texas to Florida for the next phase of development.
NASA says Morpheus is designed to deliver up to 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) of cargo to the moon from lunar orbit. Such payloads could include a small rover, a robotic laboratory to convert moon dust into oxygen and other materials, or even a humanoid robot. The Morpheus project evolved from a preliminary mission concept known as "Project M," which involved sending a two-legged robot to the moon for remote-controlled exploration.
The prototype that exploded today served as a test bed for concepts that could be incorporated into the next-generation lunar lander.
"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," NASA said in today's statement. "Additional objectives include technology demonstrations — for instance, tank material and manufacture, reaction control thrusters, main engine performance improvements, helium pressurization systems, ground operations, flight operations, range safety, software and avionics architecture."
The prototype also serves as an experiment in using methane for space propulsion. Systems that use methane and liquid oxygen are considered more environmentally benign than the hydrazine-based thruster systems that are traditionally used on space probes, including the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft that deposited the Curiosity rover on the Red Planet this week.
Update for 8 p.m. ET: Armadillo Aerospace's founder, video-game millionaire John Carmack, said in a series of Twitter updates that it was "sad" to see Morpheus crash, "but getting comfortable with failure allows you to progress faster. If allowed to."
"Whenever I see bright and confident rocket people (including NASA!), I warn them about the upcoming inevitable Tragic Loss of Vehicle," Carmack wrote.
Video taken in Cape Canaveral, Fla., shows an experimental, unmanned NASA spacecraft, worth about $500,000, having trouble taking off and eventually bursting into flames. WESH's Dan Billow reports.
More about Morpheus:
- NASA tests robot landers to lead way to future
- Inside NASA's 'Skunk Works' laboratory
- June 2011: Morpheus starts grass fire
- Lander made with 'Home Depot' engineering
Last updated 3:10 p.m. ET.
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.