Night launches are inherently stunning, with rocket fire illuminating billowing clouds from within set against a dramatically dark skyline, but the futuristic Morpheus lander adds a whole new component of cool.

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Morpheus traced a path of fire in the sky, going up to a height of more than 244 meters before picking a safe point to land.

The night launch marked the final test of 14 in the free-flight test sequence for the prototype Morpheus lander. The quadruped lander is designed to take off vertically, manoeuvre, and rely on autonomous hazard detection to find a safe landing zone when exploring alien worlds.

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Posters commemorating Free Flight 14, the first night-flight and final test in the free flight sequence.

Preparations began far before sunset, loading in fuel, setting up cameras, and doing last pre-flight checks to get the prototype ready for testing.

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Setting up an explosion-proof camera to document the night flight.

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Fuelling up with a load of liquid oxygen (LOX).

Faint lights highlighting the interior of Morpheus against a darkening sky.

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Final preparations as the sun sets.
The launch was initially delayed due to pre-flight issues including an ignition failure due to crossing over a non-critical temperature limit, but the second attempt was successful.

Here's the full video:

The Morpheus/ALHAT team successfully completed Free Flight 14 (FF14) at the KSC SLF on Wednesday, May 28, 2014, Bravo's 12th and ALHAT's 5th free flight — and the first ever night flight. Initial data indicated nominal performance of all vehicle systems.

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Morpheus safely on the ground after the free flight in a landing zone free from scattered boulders.

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The landing relied on the hazard detection system, a LiDAR system that builds a map of target landing areas (left). The hazard detection system performed well, but picked a safe landing site a half-meter outside the pre-determined limits. If it had been allowed to continue, it would have safely landed the craft anyway, but the conservative limits kicked in and overrode the choice.

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This was the last test in the currently-planned sequence, and the team hasn't yet let us in on what happens next to put this prototype through its paces. If the tests keep going as well as they have been, it's conceivable that Morpheus will be deployed for missions to the moon, Mars, or other solid-surfaced bodies around our Solar System in the not-too-distant future.

All images credit: NASA/Morpheus. Read more here. For more NASA prototypes, Hawaii is about to get a lot of UFO reports when this flying saucer starts testing next week.

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