Lunar Lion students rocket toward aerospace’s cutting edge

Bill Zimmerman
October 02, 2013

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – 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. The quest is keeping them at University Park year-round.  

“The bottom line is, we’re going to the moon,” said Kara Morgan, a sophomore from Pittsburgh. “When you realize the significance of that statement it’s mind blowing.”

Space fever

Lunar Lion has a grip on these students, who are all studying aerospace engineering and officers within the organization. Morgan was thinking of transferring until she heard about Lunar Lion. Ajeeth Ibrahim, a second-year graduate student from Collegeville, Pa., declined a dream internship at Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo., to devote his summer to the mission at University Park. JP Muncks, a second-year graduate student from Severna Park, Md., said Lunar Lion is the reason he applied to Penn State. Philip Chow, a sophomore from Malvern, Pa., 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

Lunar Lion has set these students on an atypical trajectory. When they’re not in the classroom, they’re logging in long hours in the lab, often putting concepts from lectures into practice. 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. Students and engineers at the University will be running tests and sharing data with NASA to improve the rockets’ efficiency.

“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, Pa.

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.

The students are preparing for the first testing of the NASA rocket thrusters in late October at an ARL facility inside the Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute at University Park.

New space

The Lunar XPRIZE organizers aim to put the first spacecraft on the moon since 1973 and are offering $40 million in prize money for private entities that accomplish it. While NASA has experienced cutbacks, startups such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have more aggressively pursued space exploration.

“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.

We are

Before landing on the moon, these students are on a mission to share their enthusiasm, as they build a multi-disciplinary framework around Lunar Lion. Lunar Lion needs the likes of student Web designers, social media managers and videographers. Two students pursuing masters 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 first hand.

“There are very few people who wouldn’t want to go to space,” Morgan said.

For more information on the Lunar Lion team, contact Ibrahim at Those interested in joining the team can complete a form at



  • Lunar Lion Team Logo
    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated December 20, 2013