A test flight will challenge a set of sensors to map out a 65-yard square of boulder-sized hazards and pick out a safe place to land. Mounted to an uncrewed prototype lander called Morpheus that flies autonomously several hundred feet above the ground, the sensor system will have 10 seconds to do its work. The sensor system is a 400-pound set of computers and three instruments called ALHAT (Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology).

The white box is one of the sensors used to determine where Morpheus needs to go to land safely. (NASA/Kim Shiflett)

If it works, the sensor package and a host of technologies introduced by the lander may find themselves instrumental in the success of future missions to other worlds – perhaps propelling a descent stage on a spacecraft landing people on Mars.

Bolted to different parts of the lander, the suite of sensors surveys the target landing area, identifies safe landing sites, and then uses three methods to tell the lander where it needs to go to avoid rocks, slopes, or other hazards.

The benefit of the hazard avoidance system is that it gives spacecraft far more flexibility to land accurately and to land on worlds that are not as well-studied as Mars and the Moon. The ALHAT team is shooting for a system that can land within 10 feet of a given spot, a big improvement on the current best of about 270 feet. The precision isn't academic — it could be the difference between setting down on a stable plateau or tipping over into a ravine.