NASA plans to build a second generation of small robotic landers to send to the moon and asteroids. The job description may also include sending the landers to visit high-risk - and high-priority areas - in previously unexplored regions of space. Among other tasks, the landers will gather data and serve as possible precursors to later human robotic missions.
NASA Marshall engineers prepare the robotic lander prototype for tests at the U.S. Army Redstone Arsenal Test Center in Huntsville, Ala. The agency hopes to begin flight testing later in the year. The project, which began 17 months ago, will finish with a free flight testing for periods up to sixty seconds.
The robotic lander during strapdown testing. During this testing phase, engineers do a close-up examination of the integrated lander prototype before moving to more complex free flight tests.
During final testing of the prototype's sensors, computer, and thrusters, the lander prototype got placed on modified skateboards and a customized track system. NASA designed the test as a low-cost solution to control movement.
A hot-fire test of the robotic lander prototype's propulsion system. The system consists of a series of thrusters to control the descent, altitude and differences in gravity environment, such as those found on the moon and asteroids.
Control thruster fired under vacuum conditions to simulate operation in a space environment. In this test, NASA used a lunar mission profile as it gauged the potential of thruster technologies for possible future use on NASA spacecraft.
Robotic lunar lander testing at the Marshall Center. You can watch a video of the lander prototype here.
A series of hot-fire tests were carried out at NASA's White Sands Test facility to demonstrate the ability of the thrusters to perform the descent and landing operations. The995 second test was judged to be a success. The DACS thruster - short for Divert and Attitude Control System - was fired under vacuum conditions to simulate operation in a space environment. In the accompanying image: (a) Test Setup in vacuum chamber for thruster hot-firing and comparison of engine envelope; (b)Conventional thruster; and (c) DACS Thruster.