The NASA Rocket That Hovers Like a Helicopter (but Could Land on Mars)

Today, Florida; Tomorrow, Mars
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Yesterday, a NASA test vehicle lifted off from the ground in Florida, flew freely through the air, and landed about 650 feet away. It landed, crucially, in the same position it launched—upright—and that makes it look kind of like a science fiction film. You can watch the awesome video below:

It’s called Morpheus. While it may never fly in space in its current form, Morpheus is designed to be a useful prototype mission for the space agency, something that engineers can learn and borrow ideas and mechanisms from. It runs on liquid oxygen and methane, two fuels which could be made on other planets. It’s also designed to land on rocky or unstable terrain—notice how, at the end of this video, it lands on soil that’s downright Martianesque.

Morpheus is, in fact, one of 20 projects that NASA is developing as part of its Advanced Exploration Systems program, which pushes at the edge of the agency’s capabilities. The projects range from deep space habitats to radiation protection, from imaging near-Earth asteroids to automating the flight of the International Space Station. NASA is, in fact, asking for a larger budget for the program in 2015 (even as it seems to be making many other harmful cuts). 

NASA isn’t the only organization developing a rocket like this. Last year, SpaceX—the private space company owned by Elon Musk—successfully tested a rocket which takes off and lands vertically, which it calls the Grasshopper, and which it filmed with (what else?) a drone.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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