We're Going to the Moon!

The Lunar Lion team rockets toward aerospace’s cutting edge, putting NASA equipment in students’ hands.

In 2015, Penn State’s Lunar Lion team plans to put an unmanned spacecraft on the moon. In 2013, the ambitious project is putting cutting edge NASA equipment in students’ hands.

Through a recent agreement between the University's Applied Research Laboratory and NASA's Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, students will be able to test bipropellant rocket thrusters powered by liquid methane and liquid oxygen—the type that will play a crucial role in putting Penn State’s spacecraft on the moon’s surface in the race for Google Lunar XPRIZE.

Two Lunar Lion students cutting a piece of metal in the Learning Factory.

Lunar Lion students

Students Melissa Quinnan and Alwin Paul work together in the lab. Melissa says that what she's doing is applied in real life. "I use what I've learned and I get the hands-on experience with engineering."

IMAGE: Penn State

Kara Morgan, sophomore, says the idea of sending a spacecraft to the moon is "mind-blowing."

For a group of some of the most involved Lunar Lion students, the rocket testing and the overall moon mission is infusing their studies with the sort of hands-on experience that peers at other institutions and even some aerospace workers can only dream about.

Space fever

Lunar Lion has a grip on these students, who are all studying aerospace engineering and officers within the organization.

Morgan was thinking of transferring until she heard about Lunar Lion. Ajeeth Ibrahim, a second-year graduate student from Collegeville, Pennsylvania, declined a dream internship at Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colorado, to devote his summer to the mission at University Park campus.

Lunar Lion Team examining rocket design

Lunar Lion Team examining rocket design

Members of Penn State's Lunar Lion team compared a model of a rocket engine with their original computer design. The Lunar Lion team includes students from a variety of disciplines. Their goal is to design a robotic spacecraft that could land on the moon.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

“After a project like this, I can’t imagine not doing something cutting edge.”—Ajeeth Ibrahim

Philip Chow, a sophomore from Malvern, Pennsylvania, was hooked once he saw a Lunar Lion promotional video during convocation for first-year students.

While spreading the word about Lunar Lion at the recent beginning-of-semester Involvement Fair, they heard similar stories from fellow students.

“After a project like this, I can’t imagine not doing something cutting edge,” said Ibrahim, the president of Lunar Lion.

Sky's the limit

Lunar Lion has set these students on an atypical trajectory. When they’re not in the classroom, they’re logging in long hours in the lab, often putting concepts from lectures into practice.

The rocket research will familiarize them—and potentially more than 80 other undergraduate and graduate students—with the type of equipment needed for the Penn State craft to make a smooth lunar landing.

Students and engineers at the University will be running tests and sharing data with NASA to improve the rockets’ efficiency.

“It’s a win for students, it’s a win for the University, it’s a win for (aerospace) companies and it’s a win for NASA,” said Michael Policelli, a third-year graduate student from Bangor, Pennsylvania.

Tests will include propellants capable of generating several hundred pounds per inch and liquid coolants at -301 degrees. Powered by nontoxic fuel considered safer than traditional rocket fuels, these rockets are considered green technology.  

“At these pressures and temperatures, it’s not conventional plumbing,” Policelli said.

As part of the only collegiate entity, the Lunar Lion students envision Penn State moving to the forefront of this “New Space” paradigm.

New space

The Lunar XPRIZE organizers aim to put the first spacecraft on the moon since 1973 and are offering $40 million in prize money for private entities that accomplish it. While NASA has experienced cutbacks, startups such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have more aggressively pursued space exploration.

“It (NASA) used to be the only game in town,” Policelli said. “Now it’s branched out and there are multiple options. It’s a whole new world.”

As part of the only collegiate entity, the Lunar Lion students envision Penn State moving to the forefront of this “New Space” paradigm.

Faculty and ARL researchers are a wealth of information, they said, with expertise in the likes of power systems, navigation and propulsion. Plus, there’s a network of more than 600,000 Penn State alumni worldwide. One parts supplier waives the shipping fee for the team’s equipment because the company president is an alumnus.

We are

Before landing on the moon, these students are on a mission to share their enthusiasm, as they build a multidisciplinary framework around Lunar Lion.

Lunar Lion needs the likes of student web designers, social media managers, and videographers. Two students pursuing master of business administration degrees just came on board.

“Stuff like this doesn’t just happen with engineers at the helm,” Ibrahim said.

As Penn State raises its profile in the space race, the students see the experience raising their stock in the job market. NASA and the new crop of space exploration startups are on their radar, as is maybe one day seeing the cosmos firsthand.

“There are very few people who wouldn’t want to go to space,” Morgan said.