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Student Spotlight: Penn State’s Lunar Lion Team Looking to Redefine Space History

by Abigail Johnson, PSIEE Communications Intern
March 3, 2013

UNIVERSITY PARK – The Penn State Lunar Lion team is seeking its own brand of immortality by aiming to be the first university-led, privately funded team to land a rocket on the moon.

The team is competing for the Google Lunar XPrize, which is the "largest international incentive-based prize of all time," according to the competition website.

Eighteen teams – down from an initial 33 teams – from around the world are racing to be the first to land a craft on the moon; they must travel 500 meters above, below or on the lunar surface and send back high definition pictures and videos all by December 31, 2015.

Tennessen in Florida setting up recording device

Photo courtesy: Lunar Lion Publicity

The challenge certainly seems achievable – after all, NASA landed a man on the moon in 1969 – but there’s a catch: no more than 10% of each team’s funds can come from any government in the world.

"And the first team that can do this, and prove that private industry can do this, will get the $20 million grand prize," said Ajeeth Ibrahim, the student lead of the Lunar Lion team.

According to an article by Stephen Petranek in Money Morning, private companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are demonstrating that they can supply space stations and perform other basic missions for a cheaper cost than government-funded missions.


Donations, resourcefulness are key

Predicting that other teams will put wheels on their spacecraft to help them meet the 500-meter travel requirement, the Penn State team has decided to use the existing propulsion system instead. "Every team needs that propulsion system in place, so we’re going to put a little more fuel in it and just hop on the lunar surface as opposed to going over it with wheels," Ibrahim said.

This means there will be less moving parts that can break or get stuck, significantly reducing the risk involved in the mission, he said.

The team is currently testing thrusters similar to ones donated to them by NASA. According to Ibrahim, equipment donations like this, in conjunction with individual philanthropic donations, have formed the bulk of the team’s private funding and brought down the cost of the project by millions of dollars.

In an effort to get more people involved in the mission, the Lunar Lion team also created a crowdfunding campaign at http://www.rockethub.com/lunarlion, which ends on July 1, 2014. When the Rockethub.com campaign ends, donations can still be made at lunarlion.psu.edu.

Rockethub.com donors receive prizes according to the amount they donate. For example, for $100, a donor can write a 140-character message that will be put on the spacecraft sent to the moon. Ibrahim predicts that these messages will remain there for at least 10 million years.

"I don’t think this mission will succeed or—let me take a step back—I don’t think this mission will even get off the ground if we don’t have the support of the Penn State community and elsewhere," Ibrahim said.

Thus far, the crowdfunding campaign has been successful in drawing support not just from the Penn State community but from places as far away as Australia and New Zealand.


Huge opportunities for undergrads

One of the things that makes the Penn State Lunar Lion team stand out from the pack is its collaboration among students and faculty, and many companies are looking at this collaboration as a potential opportunity. According to Ibrahim, undergraduates involved in this project have gotten internships with Ball Aerospace, SpaceX and NASA.

"So they work on Lunar Lion for a bit of their undergrad, they get an internship with their company, they come back and do even greater work with Lunar Lion, and by the time they graduate, they’re some of the best engineers coming out of universities in this country," Ibrahim said.

3D rendering of the Lunar Lion craft.
3D rendering. Photo courtesy: Lunar Lion Publicity.

Students on the Lunar Lion team are now testing developing control software that will eventually be put on the spacecraft. But although faculty members are available for guidance, it is the students who are designing that code from scratch.

According to Ibrahim, some of the students on the team "came in not knowing anything about engineering or space or what they could even do, but they came into this project with a lot of energy and dedication, and they just threw themselves at it.

"Now they’re probably in their sophomore, junior year, and they have way more experience than seniors that are graduating." This experience will be useful in the growing private space sector.

For Ajeeth Ibrahim and the Penn State Lunar Lion team, the thought that they could be the first privately funded entity to land a space craft on the moon is exhilarating.

"I think that’d be the biggest moment for the space industry since landing humans on the moon," Ibrahim said. "And I want to be involved in a project that redefines that moment in space history."

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