The deadline for the Google Lunar X Prize – the end of 2015 – is almost here, but Penn State Lunar Lions Mission Director Michael Paul isn’t worried.
“We’re not going to launch before the end of 2015,” he says.
The Lunar Lions are one of only 18 teams left out of the original 33 that entered Google’s competition to build a spacecraft capable of reaching the moon and sending back new data and images. Of those, the Lunar Lions is the only university-led team competing.
Paul says some teams dropped out because they didn’t think they’d be able to meet the deadline. But since none of the teams have signed a launch contract with NASA – which must be done 24 months in advance of the actual launch – Paul says the deadline might be extended.
“It’s hard to gauge how the other teams are progressing and what system development they’ve gotten through,” Paul says. “I think that, even with that looming deadline, we’re one of the stronger teams. If the deadline gets extended, we might be at the top of the pack.”
Even if the deadline isn’t extended and Penn State has no chance at the $20 million first place prize, Paul says the Lunar Lions have no intention of quitting before they get to the moon.
They’ve recently began working toward partnering with several companies to share a launch, which Paul describes as “kind of like a timeshare with a rocket.” Several companies will have payloads deposited in low-earth orbit, while the top of the rocket will take the Lunar Lions’ craft all the way to the moon.
While the Lunar Lions work on coordinating with the various interests who need to launch at the same time as them, they’ve moved into testing the propulsion system for their spacecraft.
Right now, they’re running very constrained tests just to get a sense of how much thrust the rockets can generate and how this will interact with the project prototype. By the end of November, Paul hopes to have the prototype integrated with the rockets to run more comprehensive system-wide tests.
“The value this project has brought to the university is so much more important than just the prize from Google,” Paul says. “The long-term strength we’re building here at Penn State through the students learning to build space systems is the reason we’re going after this at all.”
Even if the Lunar Lions miss their chance at competition’s prize, Paul says they’ve already won something more important: the students involved are getting the hands-on experience to land them successful careers at some of the world’s most important space-related engineering and technology companies.
“The most important product of this this missions is the student’s who becomes tomorrow’s leaders in the space industry,” Paul says.
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