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by Bill Zimmerman for PSU News
Philadelphia PA(SPX) Nov 24, 2013
In 2015, Penn State's Lunar Lion team plans to put an unmanned spacecraft on the moon. In 2013, the ambitious project is putting cutting edge NASA equipment in students' hands.
Through a recent agreement between the University's Applied Research Laboratory and NASA's Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, students will be able to test bipropellant rocket thrusters powered by liquid methane and liquid oxygen-the type that will play a crucial role in putting Penn State's spacecraft on the moon's surface in the race for Google Lunar XPRIZE.
For a group of some of the most involved Lunar Lion students, the rocket testing and the overall moon mission is infusing their studies with the sort of hands-on experience that peers at other institutions and even some aerospace workers can only dream about.
Morgan was thinking of transferring until she heard about Lunar Lion. Ajeeth Ibrahim, a second-year graduate student from Collegeville, Pennsylvania, declined a dream internship at Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colorado, to devote his summer to the mission at University Park campus.
Philip Chow, a sophomore from Malvern, Pennsylvania, was hooked once he saw a Lunar Lion promotional video during convocation for first-year students.
While spreading the word about Lunar Lion at the recent beginning-of-semester Involvement Fair, they heard similar stories from fellow students.
"After a project like this, I can't imagine not doing something cutting edge," said Ibrahim, the president of Lunar Lion.
Sky's the limit
The rocket research will familiarize them-and potentially more than 80 other undergraduate and graduate students-with the type of equipment needed for the Penn State craft to make a smooth lunar landing. "It's a win for students, it's a win for the University, it's a win for (aerospace) companies and it's a win for NASA," said Michael Policelli, a third-year graduate student from Bangor, Pennsylvania.
Tests will include propellants capable of generating several hundred pounds per inch and liquid coolants at -301 degrees. Powered by nontoxic fuel considered safer than traditional rocket fuels, these rockets are considered green technology.
"At these pressures and temperatures, it's not conventional plumbing," Policelli said.
"It (NASA) used to be the only game in town," Policelli said. "Now it's branched out and there are multiple options. It's a whole new world."
As part of the only collegiate entity, the Lunar Lion students envision Penn State moving to the forefront of this "New Space" paradigm.
Faculty and ARL researchers are a wealth of information, they said, with expertise in the likes of power systems, navigation and propulsion. Plus, there's a network of more than 600,000 Penn State alumni worldwide. One parts supplier waives the shipping fee for the team's equipment because the company president is an alumnus.
Lunar Lion needs the likes of student web designers, social media managers, and videographers. Two students pursuing master of business administration degrees just came on board.
"Stuff like this doesn't just happen with engineers at the helm," Ibrahim said.
As Penn State raises its profile in the space race, the students see the experience raising their stock in the job market. NASA and the new crop of space exploration startups are on their radar, as is maybe one day seeing the cosmos firsthand.
"There are very few people who wouldn't want to go to space," Morgan said.
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