NASA's experimental moon lander crashed and burst into flames seconds after takeoff Thursday due to a hardware fault, the US space agency said, prompting an investigation but no casualties, AFP reports.
The low-cost Project Morpheus lander prototype, designed to carry cargo to the moon and other space destinations, lifted off the ground successfully but then failed its first autonomous free-flight test at the Kennedy Space Center.
Fire crews rushed to extinguish the flames of Morpheus, large enough to carry 1,100 pounds of cargo to the moon, such as a humanoid robot, a small rover or a small laboratory to convert moon dust to oxygen.
"A hardware component failure, which prevented it from maintaining stable flight," was to blame, NASA said, noting that its engineers are examining test data to determine what caused the failure.
"Failures such as these were anticipated prior to the test, and are part of the development process for any complex spaceflight hardware," the space agency said in a statement.
"What we learn from these tests will help us build the best possible system in the future."
NASA has so far spent $7 million on the project, which aims to provide an environmentally friendly vehicle to land on the moon, asteroids and other surfaces in outer space.
It features a new propulsion system with oxygen and methane, both considered green fuels that are better for the environment than the rocket fuels NASA usually uses. They could be manufactured on other planets as well, according to the space agency.
The incident took place just days after NASA safely landed a robotic rover on Mars with the goal of finding traces of life that may have once existed on the Red Planet.