OUR OPINION: Mars journeys begin in part in Mississippi

By NEMS Daily Journal

The success so far of NASA’s Mars rover “Curiosity” shifts focus forward to additional phases of deep space exploration in development, including Project Morpheus, a lander whose prototype engine was tested in late July at Stennis Space Center in Hancock County.
The Morpheus engine and similar advanced projects remain the lifeblood scientifically and economically for Stennis, one of NASA’s largest installations and one of Mississippi’s largest centers of employment.
The Morpheus engine is powered by liquid methane and liquid oxygen.
The project is named for Morpheus, the god of dreams in Greek mythology.
When perfected, the engine would provide the thrust to carry cargo to Mars, asteroids or the moon.
The tests on Stennis’ E-3 Test Stand mark the first time the Morpheus engine has been tried detached from the lander vehicle.
The test series involved more than two dozen trials of the engine controller and thrust chamber over a period of several days, NASA reported.
During the tests, engineers gathered performance data on the new engine, which provides greater thrust for the Morpheus lander, allowing it to carry heavier payloads. NASA has designed the lander using advanced technologies, including a “green” propulsion system, and autonomous landing and hazard detection features, official releases revealed.
The Curiosity Rover is a $2.5 billion project that landed successfully Aug. 6 in the Red Planet’s Gale Crater. It is expected to provide years of analysis and exploration looking for evidence that life could have existed on Mars and for information guiding further exploration in coming decades.
As designed, Morpheus could carry a variety of payloads to the moon or other celestial bodies, such as Mars or asteroids. The payloads could include robots, small rovers or even small laboratories to run automated tests.
The lander has been undergoing tether tests at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Free flight testing is scheduled this year at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Although Morpehus is officially described as one of NASA’s “small” projects, it is a valuable segment in the overall scientific and economic impact of Stennis Space Center, reason for continuing congressional support for exploration and use of the Stennis center.
The official direct economic impact within 50 miles of the Hancock County reservation is $616 million per year. Salaries average $87,000. Major work is carried on at the center by NASA, the Navy, Army and private sector. The total workforce is 5,400.
Visit SPACE.com for complete coverage of NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity. Follow Denise Chow on Twitter @denisechow or SPACE.com @Spacedotcom.