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Penn State Students Plan a Landing for Their Lunar Lion

Lunar Lion Lander

Penn State’s entry in a high-stakes race to land a vehicle safely on the Moon is the Lunar Lion, expected to reach its destination in December 2015. (Penn State U. image)

State College, Pa. — It’s not unusual for engineering students to enter competitions. They regularly build bridges, concrete canoes, submarines, solar houses, even Rube Goldberg machines. But an 80-member team of Pennsylvania State University students is hard at work designing something that is unusual: a Moon lander.

It’s their entry in the $30-million Google Lunar X Prize competition, in which 18 privately financed teams are racing to be the first to land on the Moon, move around its surface, and send back pictures and video. First prize is $20-million. Penn State’s entry, the only one by a university, will be called the Lunar Lion—after the Nittany Lion, the university mascot.

But there’s a catch: The mission must be completed by the end of December 2015. And there’s another catch: Even with volunteer labor, Moon landings are expensive. The students figure they need to raise $20-million in cash and $40-million more in the form of in-kind donations (including the university’s gift of office and test-facility space). And, of course, they have to land without crashing.

Lunar Lion team members include Stephen Palopoli, J.P.  Muncks, Michael Policelli, Vincent Pesce, Megan Krause, and Rishi Mittal. (Chronicle photograph)

Lunar Lion team members surround their thruster test stand: Stephen Palopoli, J.P. Muncks, Michael Policelli, Vincent Pesce, Megan Krause, and Rishi Mittal. (Chronicle photograph)

None of that seems to faze students on Penn State’s team, who have some oversight from faculty members and some help from several full-time project employees. Even if another team gets there first, “we’re going to go to the Moon regardless,” says Ajeeth Ibrahim, a graduate student in aerospace engineering who just completed a term as the student president of the project.

The idea, he says, is to prove that universities can play a role in space exploration alongside traditional players (such as NASA and Boeing) and recent start-ups (like SpaceX).

“If we can do this, there will be an industry we can bring to State College,” says Mr. Ibrahim. He also says the students have signed on to “carpool into space” on a rocket launched by Team Phoenicia, an organization that originally intended to enter the competition but withdrew to focus on becoming a launch-vehicle provider.

Alwin Paul, a junior who is also majoring in aerospace engineering, leads the vehicle-design team. He says the students envision a lander four or five feet in diameter, with solar panels on top and a commercial rocket engine underneath that will fire to slow the vehicle’s descent to the Moon’s surface. Arrays of small rocket thrusters will provide directional control and also permit the lander, once it has touched down, to lift off again and make a short hop to another location—fulfilling the requirement for a move on the surface.

Among other things, the team is preparing to test crushable honeycomb feet that will serve as shock absorbers, Mr. Paul says. The honeycomb “is hard to model on a computer,” he says, “so we’ll build a drop tower.”

Another team, meanwhile, is testing a pencil-size thruster donated by NASA. The thruster is capable of producing about 20 pounds of thrust, according to Vincent Pesce, a graduate student in mechanical engineering.

“I’m doing this because it’s something I’m really passionate about,” says Mr. Pesce, taking a break from attempting to diagnose the electrical problems that dogged a recent test of the thruster. “We got a flame, but it was failure,” he says, because valve malfunctions resulted in “chugging” rather than a clean burn.

“You read about some of these instabilities in books,” including chugging, Mr. Pesce says, adding that at the team’s testing facility “concepts from the classroom can be applied in real life.”

Stephen Palopoli, a freshman, agrees. He has written programs to control the tools that will bore out the insides of thruster nozzles, he says, although he’s also doing “a lot of chores.”

“They’re really, really cool chores,” he adds quickly. “You’re debugging a rocket engine.”

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