NASA Successfully Tests Autonomous Lander

Here’s a video of NASA‘s successful attempt at setting a robotic lander free to fly on its own. The space agency’s robotic lander mission team is testing these small robotic space vehicles to land on the moon, asteroids and planets on their own, without direct input from humans.

That’s important because on many “airless bodies,” engineers can’t rely on parachutes or airbags to bring an unmanned robotic vehicle in for a safe landing as they do with Mars missions. And because the spacecraft would be so far away from Earth, it would take too long for control signals to reach the vehicle and feed back its results to Earth.

In the ’60s, NASA designed the moon lander to perform a similar function, but that lunar module was much larger than this, and, of course, it had two human beings on board to control its descent. In this first test, the engineers instructed the robotic lander to fly up to 7 feet high for 27 seconds and then land, and then it accomplished that autonomously. Check out the infrared view where you can see the heat plumes of the lander’s engines.

NASA’s looking forward to the day it can send these spacecraft to airless bodies and let them roam around the surface, lifting off and landing multiple times as they explore their scientific objectives. Next up is a test where the lander ascends to 100 feet, flying for 60 seconds. It’s a start. NASA didn’t say when these tiny spacecraft would be ready for flight, but when they are, they’ll have a major advantage over manned missions: They don’t need to return to Earth.

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