Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Marshall's new-generation lunar lander flies again

Overcast skies didn't deter the "Mighty Eagle," flying high above the historic F-1 test stand, once used to test turbopumps for the Saturn booster first stage engines [NASA/MSFC/Dennis Olive].
Long under development, completing a round of flight test objectives, following up on a successful August 28 pre-programmed flight profile test, the "Mighty Eagle," NASA robotic prototype lunar lander, flew to 30.48 meters (100 feet) and descended gently to a controlled landing during a successful free flight September 5 at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama.

Guided by autonomous rendezvous and capture software, the vehicle located an on-ground target using an on-board camera and then flew directly to the target on its own. 

The flight of August 28 followed a pre-programmed flight profile, but the test on September 5 operated "closed loop," with the vehicle seeking and finding its target using internal software to guide its flight.

"The ‘Mighty Eagle’ had a great flight, fulfilling the objectives we had for this test -- finding and landing on its target using a closed-loop system," said Greg Chavers, test lead for the project. "Given this is one of our last tests in this series, it is a worthy finale of a lot of people’s hard work -- including our young engineers. They did a remarkable job running today’s flight."

New for this test, the "Mighty Eagle" project managers turned over the vehicle’s keys to three young Marshall engineers, Adam Lacock, flight manager; Jake Parton, test conductor; and Logan Kennedy, systems engineer.

Nicknamed the "Mighty Eagle" after one of the characters in the popular "Angry Birds" game, the vehicle is a three-legged prototype that resembles an actual flight lander design. It is 4 feet tall and 8 feet in diameter and, when fueled, weighs 700 pounds. It is a “green” vehicle, fueled by 90 percent pure hydrogen peroxide The vehicle is guided by an on-board computer that activates thrusters to power the craft’s movements.

"We’ve surpassed our expectations and flew the most challenging run to date," said Mike Hannan, a controls engineer in Marshall's Engineering Directorate. "It was an overcast, extremely humid day, and we were concerned steam might block the vehicle’s camera. We didn’t see that, and the lander sought and found its target successfully."

"It was an invaluable experience managing today’s test,” added Lacock. "This is the kind of experience young engineers, like myself, need to learn more about flight mechanics, vehicle hardware and project management. It was a good day for our team."

NASA will use the "Mighty Eagle" to mature the technology needed to develop a new generation of small, smart, versatile robotic landers capable of achieving scientific and exploration goals on the surface of the moon, asteroids or other airless bodies.

The "Mighty Eagle" was developed by the Marshall Center and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., for NASA’s Planetary Sciences Division, Headquarters Science Mission Directorate. Key partners in this project include the Von Braun Center for Science and Innovation, which includes the Science Applications International Corporation, Dynetics Corp., and Teledyne Brown Engineering Inc., all of Huntsville.

Related and Background Posts:
Mighty Eagle lander 100 foot flight at Redstone (November 4, 2011)
New Robotic Lander Prototype skates tests (January 29, 2011)
NASA update; ILN Anchor Nodes and Robotic Lunar Lander Project (August 17, 2010)
The Lunar Quest Program and the International Lunar Network (September 6, 2009)

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