Mission Possible: Lion to the Moon
The countdown is on, and Penn State is vying for a place in history by being the first in the world to safely land a privately-funded spacecraft on the moon, as part of a competition organized by Google. The Penn State Lunar Lion team, the only university-led team of 26 in the competition, is working to design, build, launch and land a spacecraft, then take photos and a video from the cratered landscape and broadcast them back to Earth. The first-place prize for success is $20 million, which Penn State would turn into an endowment for students. Winning, project leaders believe, would place Penn State at the forefront of the opening space exploration industry.
Rising to the Challenge
Not since the early days of color TV has the world seen a moon buggy or spacecraft on the dusty gray moon surface. The United States' last missions to the moon were Apollo 15, 16 and 17 in 1971–72. No spacecraft, manned or unmanned, has made a soft landing on the moon since Russia’s Luna 26 in 1976. With government resources for space exploration waning, private space exploration is the wave of the future, making the Google Lunar X PRIZE competition a scientific endeavor of astronomical proportions in terms of advancing space exploration and knowledge for humanity. And Penn State has an opportunity to be at the epicenter of it all.
The Google Lunar X PRIZE competition requires each team to launch a spacecraft and have it touchdown successfully on the moon—no easy goal. During the last couple of decades, some spacecraft have intentionally crash-landed on the moon at the end of their missions or as part of testing—such as NASA’s LCROSS mission—at a whopping 5,000 miles an hour. The Lunar Lion team’s grand challenge is to build a spacecraft that can put the brakes on and land gently, in one piece and facing upright.
Once that happens, the competition rules stipulate that the spacecraft must capture images from that spot on the moon’s surface and “mooncast” them back to Earth. Then the lander must relocate about one-third of a mile to repeat the photo shoot—not an easy task, since moving the spacecraft requires powering the whole thing up once again. If the photos or videos contain visible glimpses of hardware left over from the Apollo era, the team wins another $5 million.
“When people begin to ask questions about this project, they walk right into the reason we’re doing this … building capability for decades to come,” said Michael V. Paul, a space systems engineer at Penn State's Applied Research Laboratory, and the Lunar Lions’ team leader. “Space exploration pushes the boundaries of human knowledge, teaching us about the formation of our world in ways we couldn’t achieve otherwise.”
The team draws on Penn State's extensive expertise in electrical, mechanical and aerospace engineering, and the students, faculty and staff who comprise the team have experience ranging from drafting and fabrication to assembly, testing and flying into space.
The Lunar Lions have been working for more than a year on their mission plan and spacecraft design. They know how much power they’ll need to get their vehicle from the Earth to the moon. They’ve calculated that the trip will take less than five days from rocket launch to touchdown on the moon’s surface. They’ve determined the precise spot they want to land—not far from the Apollo 11 landing site. And perhaps most importantly, they’ve stuck to their goal of no frills.
“We’re going to show how you can do this in an inexpensive and efficient way, using a simple design,” said Rona Banai, a graduate student in materials sciences and engineering who recently joined the team.
Despite the large number of participating teams, the Lunar Lion team, under Paul’s direction, is confident that its approach will help it win in the end by sticking to functionality rather than tacking on the latest technological bells and whistles just to see if they’ll work. All teams have until Dec. 31, 2015, to complete their missions.
It’s All About Design
Another advantage held by the Lunar Lions over other teams is being centrally located in one place to coordinate the massive amount of planning and analysis required for this challenge. Other teams have members scattered around on different continents.
“We use the (Microsoft) SharePoint system to coordinate everything, including designs, plans, drawings, materials and proposals, so that anyone can access them,” said Kevin Walker, an industrial engineering student who will be the project manager directing a team of students this summer. “For every pound of spacecraft, you need a pound of paper—that’s a favorite saying of Michael’s.”
Much of the original design and mission plan for the Lunar Lion was devised with the help of experienced NASA engineers during spring break a year ago, when the Lunar Lion team traveled to the NASA Glenn Research Center outside of Cleveland. Since then, as more students have joined the effort (and a couple have graduated), plans have continued to gel.
“The design is compact and streamlined, with a focus on winning the competition,” said Paul. “We’ve done the systems engineering analysis to figure out how to win. We know what the technical details are, and we’ve allowed margin for growth as the design matures.”
The Lunar Lion design includes solar panels to harness the sun’s energy once the lander is resting on the moon’s surface. “Solar panels will be used as a battery charger and simultaneously power the camera and the systems that will communicate back to us,” said Banai. Banai is helping design the solar panels, as well as working on locating a manufacturer who will donate necessary items, just as other donors are being sought for the other technical components.
“It’s a unique opportunity for many businesses to be able to say that their panels are on the satellite,” she said. “It’s great advertising.”
A level spot is important for gaining the best angle of the sun and powering those solar panels and also for ensuring a safe landing without the complexity of incorporating expensive “autonomous hazard-avoidance” software. The team is using the best and newest data available from NASA to choose an area on the lunar surface that’s smooth and slope-free.
The Lunar Lion team plans to keep communication open on the moon for eight days. After that, the lander will remain in its position forever. The team speculates that perhaps, when the next lunar day begins at the lander’s resting place, the panels may go on doing their job providing power and streaming images to Earth past the competition’s days.
“We’ve defined our goals very specifically in terms of the grand prize, and come up with the simplest possible system to achieve that goal,” said Paul. “As the only university-led tem in this competition, the Lunar Lion is not promising to pay back its sponsors through the proceeds of the prize,” said Paul. Rather, the rewards for partnering corporations—and for Penn State—will be much more far-reaching.
Paul and his team are soliciting corporate and private funding for their project. Although this will be a very low-cost mission in relation to other proposed missions to the moon, according to Paul, a lot of money is still needed to launch their Lunar Lion into space. The government, per the Google Lunar X PRIZE guidelines, can fund up to 10 percent of the program. But the difference with this university-led emphasis, said Paul, is that establishing a consortium with sponsoring corporations will benefit both those industries and Penn State in a win-win-win situation. Companies will have a close look at Penn State’s well-trained students as potential employees, and those same students will benefit from learning state-of-the-art technology from outside the University. And sponsoring companies will have their names linked with making moon-flight history.
All 26 teams are exhibiting their designs on the Google Lunar X PRIZE’s page. Browse through the location dropdown menu to see the other countries represented, from Ireland to New Zealand to Guatemala, and check out their designs.
The point of the Google Lunar X PRIZE is to foster a competition that encourages the best creative solutions in the world for making privately-funded space exploration more affordable. But for this Penn State team, taking part in the race to the moon is about more than winning. The collaboration of several of Penn State’s greatest scientific and engineering minds from a range of disciplines on this single project helps place the University on the map as a center of space exploration and expertise. For questions about the Lunar Lion project or to help support the team, e-mail Paul at Michael.V.Paul@psu.edu. Check out a video of the project below.