Without astronauts to pilot them, NASA no longer needs manned landing modules like the one Buzz Aldrin flew during the Apollo mission. Instead, NASA is building a new generation of robotic spacecraft capable of setting down on alien worlds without human intervention.
The Mighty Eagle — nicknamed after the level-annihilating Angry Birds character — is a robotic tripod that stands a squat 1.2 metres tall, measures 2.4 metres wide and weighs 317kg when fully laden with its supply of 180-proof hydrogen peroxide. It has been developed by researchers from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center working with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU/APL). The Mighty Eagle prototype relies on a sophisticated on-board computer to control the vehicle's thrusters while navigation algorithms process real-time image data to find a suitable parking spot.
After successfully completing a round of "tethered" test flights last year, NASA let the lander off its leash at the beginning of August. On August 8th, the Mighty Eagle took its first "free" flight at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, climbing 10 metres in the air before strafing six metres sideways and landing on target 34 seconds later. Eight days later, the Mighty Eagle did it again.
On the two most recent flights, on August 28 and September 5, the Mighty Eagle perform the liftoff/hover/strafe/land routine first in "open loop" mode — taking its lead from pre-programmed flight instructions — then again in "closed loop" mode wherein it flew autonomously using its navigation software and camera system to find and fly to a remote landing target.
"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," Greg Chavers, test lead for the project, said in a press statement. "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."
The Mighty Eagle and its failure-prone contemporary, the Morpheus Lander, have been built to help flight engineers develop a new generation of small autonomous landing craft capable of setting themselves down in airless environments — everywhere from the surface of the moon to the surface of passing asteroids. But first, the Mighty Eagle has to earn its wings.