NASA's "Mighty Eagle" successfully found its target during a 32-second free flight Aug. 16 at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. This small, versatile robotic lander prototype demonstrates technologies applicable for the final descent of an autonomous controlled landing on the moon, asteroids or other celestial bodies.
The three-legged "green" lander is fueled by 90 percent pure hydrogen peroxide and receives its commands from an onboard computer that activates its onboard thrusters to carry it to a controlled landing. It is 4 feet tall and 8 feet in diameter and, when fueled, weighs 700 pounds. The test is part of a new series of free flights testing the vehicle's autonomous rendezvous and capture capabilities using an on-board camera to optically navigate to a designated target area and landing site.
Today's flight carried the vehicle to an altitude of 30 feet, where it identified an optical target painted on the ground about 21 feet away, and descended for a safe landing.
"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," said Mike Hannan, a controls engineer in Marshall's Engineering Directorate. "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."
NASA's "Mighty Eagle" will help mature the technology needed to develop a new generation of small, affordable, smart, versatile robotic landers capable of achieving scientific and exploration goals throughout the solar system.
"This test-bed is a small, low-cost project that will help NASA mature technologies needed to meet future robotic science and exploration goals," said Dr. Greg Chavers, "Mighty Eagle" engineering lead at the Marshall Center. "What we learn here will help decision-makers map out what's needed to make landing missions possible."
The team completed 25 successful test flights in 2011 and 2012, meeting all test objectives. Previous tests validated the reusable robotic lander flight design, exercised flight and design team partnerships -- incorporating affordable, innovative, off-the-shelf flight components -- and demonstrated guidance, navigation and control algorithms.
Having completed its original mission, the vehicle now serves as a functional aerial test platform for the demonstration of new algorithms and flight sensors. Additional free flights, reaching an altitude of up to 100 feet, are scheduled through the end of September.
The "Mighty Eagle" prototype lander was developed by the Marshall Center and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., for NASA Headquarter's Planetary Science Division, 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.
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