Lunar Lion team recruits geosciences students to create science plan for moon

Cassie Hannigan and Mitch Hastings joined the Lunar Lion team in the summer of 2016 to help the team create a science plan for the moon. Here, they stand next to the team's engine prototype, PUMA. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When you look into the night sky a few years from now, you might be saying to yourself, "There’s a vehicle built by Penn State students on the moon right now." That voyage to the moon is the focus of the student-run Lunar Lion team’s efforts, and they recently brought on two new team members — both geosciences majors — to help plan the team’s lunar research.

“Joining Lunar Lion is a good opportunity to get involved in something that’s going to continue past our time at Penn State and expand the knowledge that we’ve gained in our classes,” said geosciences senior and Lunar Lion science team leader Mitch Hastings, a native of Delmont, Pennsylvania.

Lunar Lion was originally formed in 2011 and was competing in the Google Lunar XPrize, which seeks to innovate and reduce costs of spacecraft design. The Penn State team was the only university-led team to pursue the XPRIZE, competing with 33 other teams from around the world to execute the first privately funded mission to land on the Moon.

However, in 2015, the Lunar Lion team decided to leave the competition to expand its focus and be more in alignment with the goals of the students.

“Lunar Lion is all about student achievement,” said team lead Chris Covert, a senior majoring in aerospace engineering. “Our goal is very much to land a craft on the moon, but in order to get there, we’re educating so many students about space systems, propulsion and other subsystem specialties.”

Leaving the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition — but still continuing on their path toward a space voyage — provided Lunar Lion with a blank slate for what science it could accomplish on the moon.

The geosciences students are looking at what is known about the moon from returned samples and remote observations, and then asking where the Lunar Lion mission could fill in knowledge gaps. There are many unanswered questions related to the moon's geology.

Sonny Harman, a geosciences doctoral candidate and science adviser to the team, is working with the two geosciences students to shape the science questions for the Lunar Lion mission. They are exploring a number of compatible science goals, including more closely examining sites of recent volcanic activity, or investigating magnetic anomalies. Further exploration can address unproven theories related to lunar geology.

“Basically, there are a lot of theories but not a lot of ground truth for those theories. We have the chance to potentially help confirm or deny some of those,” said Cassie Hanagan, a sophomore majoring in geosciences who hails from State College, Pennsylvania.

Lunar Lion team members prepare their engine prototype, named PUMA, for testing. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Lunar Lion embodies Penn State’s educational values and provides a unique, hands-on opportunity for students to apply knowledge from their respective majors in a collaborative fashion.

“I’ve had many field work and geophysical surveying classes, which help me know what it’s possible to investigate under the surface of the moon,” said Hastings. “Those courses also gave us an understanding of how different scientific data collection methods work in general and which of those we could implement on a smaller spacecraft.”

Students secure the Lunar Lion PUMA prototype in place prior to test activities. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

The team’s focus on education and student achievement is what inspired Hanagan and Hastings to apply to Lunar Lion.

“What got me excited about Lunar Lion was hearing Chris Covert come into one of our geosciences classes and talk about Lunar Lion as students working toward a goal of just learning,” said Hanagan.

To pursue that educational objective, mission director Michael Paul gets students involved in all aspects of the mission, which allows them to teach and learn from one another. His own experience working on deep-space robotic missions, such as the Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft, have influenced how he approaches his role within Lunar Lion.

“I’m a big believer in the idea that every individual has many capabilities and I really try to give students the opportunity to learn more about different parts of the project,” said Paul, who is also a research and development engineer with Penn State’s Applied Research Laboratory. “Some of the best people I’ve worked with in industry are business people who understood the science behind a mission, or scientists who have a handle on the engineering side of things.”

Getting space-focused geosciences students on board will not only help with planning the team’s ultimate moon mission, but it will also provide a more well-rounded experience for all students involved as they share their knowledge with one another. This all serves to set Lunar Lion up for a path to making a positive impact in the future.

“It’s not only a university-led project to land on the moon; it’s something that will achieve a science goal that will better society as a whole,” said Covert.

Lunar Lion is funded by private donations and administered by the Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium, which is housed in Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. For more information on Lunar Lion, visit

Last Updated December 12, 2016