Lunar Lion's moon dreams ready for next step
Feb 26, 2013 (Centre Daily Times (State College - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
UNIVERSITY PARK -- The Penn State Lunar Lion Team is the only university-led organization competing to send a spacecraft to the moon by December 2015 in hopes of winning a $20 million prize through the Google Lunar X Prize Competition.
The team, made up of Penn State students and faculty, joined the competition last year to build the craft, take videos from at least two moon locations and transmit them back to Earth before the other 23 teams from around the world complete the mission.
Michael Paul, team leader and space systems engineer at the Applied Research Laboratory, said the team is in the final stages of the initial propeller-driven prototype model.
But this is hardly Paul's first attempt to enter space. He was part of the NASA's Messenger mission to Mercury that was launched in 2004.
Ajeeth Ibrahim, the team's student president and first-year aerospace engineer graduate student, added that while the next iteration of the prototype will have to use rocket thrusters, the purpose of the initial model is to show that the code the team has written for stability and control is working.
"Upon successful testing of our code on this simple prototype, it will be integrated into future models and eventually on the final spacecraft," Ibrahim said.
The propeller-driven craft should be completed by mid-March.
By summer, Paul said the team will be running a program to test rockets donated by NASA in the applied research labs around campus.
And by the end of the project, David Spencer, a professor in the department of aerospace engineering, said the spacecraft will be about the size of a round dining room table -- more than 1 yard in diameter -- and weigh more than 400 pounds.
He said the team is building computer models and scale physical models to test various concepts.
"We are currently working on a rocket-powered craft that will test out some propulsion systems and guidance and control software, along with other electronics such as communications and other sensors," he added.
Paul said about a dozen research faculty and about 40 students are leading the project but are not all in engineering.
"We have everyone on board. The engineers who help build the spacecraft, business students who are working on promoting our project, a communication department, and you name it," Paul said. "We know that even if we don't win, this project has grown by leaps and bounds, and that we have worked collaboratively to make real strides and progress for the future."
Paul said that last month the team had a meeting on how to keep moving forward with the project at the NASA's Johnson Space Center near Houston, and in April the Lunar Lion Team will send a student representative to a team summit in Chile.
Ibrahim said the competition aims to the show that private industry can accomplish complex space missions. Of the 23 teams globally in the completion, Lunar Lion is the only university-led team and is "therefore in a unique position to be able to showcase the capabilities of Penn State's faculty, students and research facilities."
"By landing a spacecraft on the moon, we will not only be able to highlight the best of our qualities and resources, but show the world that Penn State intends to play a serious role in the private space industry, and that we can indeed be successful in that endeavor."
The Google X Prize Foundation is a nonprofit educational organization that aims to encourage exploration and innovation. Paul said if the Lunar Lion Team wins, the money will go toward scholarships and research.
Britney Milazzo can be reached at 231-4648. Follow her on Twitter @brmilazzo.
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