Penn State Is Racing To Put A College-Kid-Designed Spacecraft On The Moon

As the only university competing for the Google Lunar X PRIZE, the school’s “Lunar Lion Team” is up going up against big challengers. But the researchers and students are trying to scrap their way to the moon.

In the $30 million Google Lunar X PRIZE, a challenge for the first privately funded team to transport a robotic spacecraft to the moon and send video, images, and data back to Earth, there are some big players with a lot of manpower. Competitors in the challenge, launched in 2007, include Moon Express, a lunar transportation and data company based at NASA’s Silicon Valley research park; Synergy Moon, a nonprofit initiative with working groups toiling away in 15 countries; and Earthrise Space, which has a NASA contract to provide data from its first mission to the moon.


And then there’s the Penn State’s Lunar Lion Team, the only university team in the competition, hoping to lead the school into space for the very first time. Led by Michael Paul, a space systems engineer at Penn State’s Applied Research Laboratory who has spent much of his career working on commercial communication satellites, the Lunar Lion team includes about 120 students working on everything from propulsion design to autonomous controls to marketing. There are also staff leaders, including a number of engineers leading the R&D.

“Penn State is an excellent research university. The Applied Research Lab has a lot of engineers who have worked on space missions in the past,” explains Paul.

In 2010, Paul was inspired by a Penn State board member to pursue the X PRIZE. His first stop: getting enough money to register for the competition. It wasn’t long before Paul was invited to bring a team of engineers to the NASA Glenn Research center to come up with a mission concept. Here’s how the team describes its mission on the Lunar Lion website:

In December of next year, the Lunar Lion lander will take off onboard a commercial launch vehicle. After cruising through space for five days, the spacecraft will land on the surface of the Moon, sending back high-res images and videos to Penn State’s mission control center. After this first lunar touchdown, the Penn State team will launch the Lunar Lion from the Moon’s surface and fly it to a second landing site. This maneuver will demonstrate the precision and reliability of the spacecraft as it continues to shoot breathtaking videos of the cratered, magnificent desolation.

And here’s what that might look like:

Paul contends that Lunar Lion has a number of advantages as a university team. For one, the team is working with a number of companies that are providing in-kind services and expertise. Companies have more incentive to do this for a university team, which has a firehose of space-savvy future graduates. “Several corporations have offered use of their facilities for free,” says Paul. Lunar Lion is also receiving plenty of encouragement from the Penn State community, which jut named Paul the grand marshall of this fall’s homecoming parade–the largest parade in Pennsylvania.

One of the team’s biggest challenges is actually launching the spacecraft–something that has been incredibly expensive for a long time and is only now being made more accessible thanks largely SpaceX’s work on cost reduction for rockets. To solve the launch conundrum, Lunar Lion is working with a former team in the X PRIZE competition, Team Phoenicia.


“They’re going to try to serve the niche market of small- to mid-sized spacecraft and get us launched with several other payloads all bolted onto one large structure,” Paul explains. As a result, the launch cost should be under $10 million–relatively cheap for what the team is doing.

Then, once the spacecraft has been shot into space, Lunar Lion has to make sure that the control and propulsion systems slow the vehicle enough so that it makes a landing. And if the team really wants to maximize the value of the mission, it needs to figure out a way to ensure that the onboard electronics survive the freezing lunar night.

All in all, Paul expects the costs for the mission to total $60 million: $10 million in resources at the university, $20 million in private donations, and $30 million in corporate contributions. Lunar Lion is still fundraising, and the decision of whether it makes its scheduled launch in December 2015 will depend on how quickly that fundraising progresses. If the team doesn’t launch then, it will miss the X PRIZE deadline (though X PRIZE has already changed the deadline once).

“Even if we don’t win the X PRIZE, we want to complete this mission for the good of the university,” says Paul. “If we can do this mission, what should NASA be doing instead? With all the corporations building up markets in space–could we be the place they go to do a small, fast, low-cost mission to survey where they want to put a larger, more expensive asset?”


About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more