'Look Ma, No Parachute!' Lunar Lander Floats on Electric-blue Jets

Oct 15, 2009

How do you fly on a world with no atmosphere? Wings won't work and neither do propellers. And don't even try that parachute!

NASA engineer Brian Mulac has the answer. "All it takes is practice, practice, practice," he says. "And of course, thrusters."

The space agency is perfecting the art using a prototype lunar lander at the Marshall Space Flight Center.

"What we've got here is a 'flying testbed' to help us to learn how to hover1 and land on the ," says Mulac. He's conducting the tests in collaboration with other engineers from NASA, the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and the Von Braun Center for Science and Innovation.

The electric-blue jets emerging from the lander look like some kind of futuristic high-tech gas, but in fact they are just ordinary compressed air.

"They look blue in this photo because the cold air coming out of the thrusters is interacting with our 'nice' Alabama humidity," explains Mulac. "The plumes are like miniature clouds. They contain ice crystals that scatter blue light."

The center of the prototype has one big to cancel 5/6ths of Earth's . That leaves 1/6 g for the rest of the thrusters--the same as gravity on the Moon.

"This prototype's thrusters are in the same configuration as they would be on the flight robotic , so the control algorithms and dynamics are similar," says project manager Julie Bassler.

"That's important," adds engineer Danny Harris, "because we're validating the guidance, navigation, and control system needed for a successful lunar landing."

And if the lander gets out of control? "That never happens," says Mulac, "but just in case, we've surrounded the test chamber with a huge net." The net is visible in the picture as a background network of criss-crossed ropes and would intercept the lander if it ever strayed off course.

So far, the prototype has passed all tests with flying colors: "Once we start a test, it's all autonomous," Mulac continues. "An onboard computer directs the thrusters. The flight profile is pre-programmed. We tell the craft where to go and it goes there on its own."

"By conducting these tests, we gain an appreciation for the design of missions that land on airless bodies," says NASA planetary scientist Barbara Cohen. "Many scientifically interesting places in the solar system are airless. Besides the Moon, we'd like to visit Mercury, asteroids, Europa and other airless destinations. What we learn here could have a broad application."

"It's quite an engineering problem to solve," says Mulac. "With our test bed, we're showing we can do it successfully."

Source: by Dauna Coulter, Science@NASA

Explore further: After early troubles, all go for Milky Way telescope

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

NASA Selects Team To Build Lunar Lander

Oct 03, 2005

NASA's Deputy Associate Administrator for the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate Doug Cooke announced Friday the selection of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala., and Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, ...

Phoenix Robotic Arm Camera Sees Possible Ice

Jun 01, 2008

A view of the ground underneath NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander adds to evidence that descent thrusters dispersed overlying soil and exposed a harder substrate that may be ice.

NASA announces $2M lunar lander prize

Oct 25, 2007

The U.S. space agency announced it will offer $2 million in prizes to competing teams successfully demonstrating a prototype lunar lander.

NASA Ames Leads Robotic Lunar Exploration Program

Nov 17, 2005

On Monday, the 36th anniversary of Apollo 12, the second manned lunar landing, NASA announced that it has assigned management of its Robotic Lunar Exploration Program to NASA Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley. ...

Recommended for you

Image: NASA's SDO observes a lunar transit

15 hours ago

On July 26, 2014, from 10:57 a.m. to 11:42 a.m. EDT, the moon crossed between NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory and the sun, a phenomenon called a lunar transit.

Image: Tethys in sunlight

15 hours ago

Tethys, like many moons in the solar system, keeps one face pointed towards the planet around which it orbits. Tethys' anti-Saturn face is seen here, fully illuminated, basking in sunlight. On the right side ...

User comments : 5

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

dirk_bruere
5 / 5 (1) Oct 15, 2009
Range?
poi
3.7 / 5 (3) Oct 15, 2009
@dirk_bruere
to help us to learn how to hover1 and land on the Moon," says Mulac


i guess just enough to do hover, position, and then land (lander?). guess not for the entire duration of the mission as a means of mobility, otherwise people might question whether the "lander" really "landed". ;)
Physki101
3.7 / 5 (3) Oct 16, 2009
I guess I dont get it. Didn't this problem get solved 30 years ago during the Apollo missions? I'm all for "Cooler" ways to get it done, but with all of the budget problems, seems to me you have to stick with what's been done.
david_42
5 / 5 (2) Oct 16, 2009
This technology is about flying around, not landing. Rovers tied to the surface are severely limited by topography.
plasticpower
5 / 5 (1) Oct 18, 2009
Video of that thing in action would definitely be nice.