Penn State

Penn State's Lunar Lion team takes its moonshot

UNIVERSITY PARK — One small step for man, one hopeful leap for Penn State.

A little more than a year ago, a Penn State team decided to enter the Google Lunar X Competition -- another race to the moon.

Now, the Lunar Lion team of about 40 active members is hard at work toward its goal, competing as the only team registered as a university out of 26 from around the world.

To win the grand prize of $20 million, a team must safely land a spacecraft on the moon by 2015. The craft then must travel 500 meters over the surface while sending images, video and data back to Earth.

Google's website says it's sponsoring the competition to "stimulate a passion for science, technology and engineering."

Lunar Lion team leader Michael Paul said he has the same goals.

Paul is a senior research engineer at the Applied Research Laboratory. Before coming to Penn State three years ago, he worked for NASA as the spacecraft systems engineer for the Messenger mission to Mercury that was launched in 2004.

For him, launching a spacecraft is nothing new. What is new is his involvement with students.

In addition to staff, the team includes 20 students, graduates and undergraduates of all majors.

"We have aerospace engineers, we have electrical engineers, we have computer science engineers, we have an industrial engineer who just joined the team now," Paul said. "But this team also needs ... students who are in education because we do a lot of outreach."

Reuben Bushnell, a graduate student studying materials science and engineering, is working on the spacecraft's reaction control system, the secondary propulsion system necessary for steering and stabilization.

Bushnell said he is excited to learn about everyone's contributions to the project.

"We've brought together a lot of scientists and engineers from so many different fields. I keep learning about new things that I didn't know were possible yet," he said.

For a year, the Lunar Lion team has been planning and designing the spacecraft. Among other tasks, it's determining the kinds of propulsion required to get the craft to the moon and how fast data can be downloaded from the craft's "robot brain" and sent back to the team.

"You have to figure all these things out ahead of time before you start even designing this specific hardware, never mind building it," Paul said.

There is not much to see now, but the spacecraft's design looks like a hockey puck, he said.

Though no site has been determined yet, the craft probably will be launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

But the team won't make it to launch without money.

Because the project must be 90 percent privately funded, there are advantages for the Lunar Lion's competitors, which are mostly corporations and nonprofit organizations.

"They have the technical capabilities to do this, they have the leadership necessary to make this happen, and they might be in the position to secure the funding to make it happen," Paul said. "That's really the hardest part of this — to get the funding."

So far, the Lunar Lion team's funding has come from private and corporate donations and the NASA Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium. Penn State helped with the registration fee for the contest.

Penn State has also allowed Paul to use buildings on campus to construct the spacecraft. Paul said the bulk of the building and testing will be done in State College.

Though Paul would not disclose an estimated cost, he did say that the longer a mission goes on, the more expensive it becomes. For each year that projects continue after their projected launch dates, the cost increases by 20 percent.

As of now, the Lunar Lion team does not have a projected launch date. Even if another team makes it to the moon first, the mission will continue.

"We're going to put the Nittany Lion on the moon — period," Paul said.

Quite literally, in fact.

In 2009, a three-dimensional map of the Nittany Lion Shrine was created so the shrine could be repaired easily if it suffered any damage. The team is using the map to make a tiny replica of the Nittany Lion to secure on top of the spacecraft.

But that's not all that Paul expects for the Lunar Lion's legacy.

Any prize money would be used for scholarships to Penn State, he said.

"We're about education and ... getting (students) engaged in aerospace and space exploration and building a capability here at the university that far outlasts this short mission to the moon."

That alone would make him happy.

"The way that I've defined success so far, and will continue to define success, is not necessarily just the landing, but it's everything that we're going to do and learn up to that point," Paul said. "Every single one of those students who gets involved in this that is excited by this -- that's a success."