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Penn State’s Mission to the Moon Completes First Series of Rocket Tests

The Lunar Lion team completed its first series of rocket thruster tests recently, putting the university-led Google Lunar X Prize team on track to completing the first privately funded mission to the moon.

Editor’s note: The Google Lunar X Prize is the “largest international based prize of all time“; if Penn State wins the race to the moon, it will receive $20 million in prize money.

The successful rocket tests are the first step (or “Phase 0”) toward more complex rocket testing, according to Michael Policelli, propulsion lead for the Lunar Lion and a master’s student in Aerospace Engineering.

“The design process and operational procedures that we developed in Phase 0 are essential to achieving Phase 1,” said Policelli.

These next-stage or “Phase 1” tests will involve the “pencil thruster” provided to the university by NASA as part of its Space Act Agreement with Penn State. More on Phase 1 (the aforementioned “more complex rocket testing”) later.

As for Phase 0 — the initial phase of rocket testing — it is vital for the Lunar Lion mission because it was the foundational stage for every subsequent test that the team will conduct on its thrusters. Why? Because in Phase 0, the Lunar Lion was able to validate its rocket-testing procedure.

The validation of the procedure (in other words, a confirmation that the tests work properly) was a lengthy process undertaken for some of the following reasons:

  • To figure out what could go wrong in the most extreme situations — and to make appropriate contingency plans in response to what could go wrong;
  • To create a safe situation for Applied Research lab employees, university faculty, and Penn State students working on the project;
  • To develop a thorough rocket testing procedure that is clear enough that new team members — with supervision — can come in and understand it without trouble.

I won’t get too technical about the process of Phase 0, but in essence the Lunar Lion team simulated a rocket firing (on a “copper block,” a crude test representation of a rocket) using lower-yield gaseous oxygen and methane fuel, which is easier to manage because it doesn’t have to be pressurized as much and is less volatile than higher-yield rocket fuels such as liquid oxygen.

After confirming that its rocket testing process works in Phase 0, the Lunar Lion will now test the actual NASA-provided pencil thruster in addition to thrusters of the team’s own design, which are adapted off of the original NASA schematic for increased performance. In addition, these tests will be conducted using liquid oxygen and liquid ethanol — a closer simulation of the actual fuel that the Lunar Lion rover will use — during which the team will try out different fuel-oxygen ratios for optimal performance.

This is Lunar Lion’s “Phase 1,” which is a pretty big deal according to Policelli.

“It’s a huge jump up to being able to test a liquid rocket,” he said. “The fuel has to be pressurized up to 350 psi, same with the oxygen. It’s a big step from Phase 0 to Phase 1.”

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the significant role Penn State undergraduates and graduate students played in the Lunar Lion’s first rocket test. The “Phase 0” process was completely student-developed, according to student team leader Ajeeth Ibrahim.

“Under the watchful eye of Environmental Health and Safety Standards and Applied Research Lab employees, students developed the plumbing schematic, they ordered the parts, they constructed the test stand and test procedures. And they executed the test and collected data,” Ibrahim said.

You can see the rocket test itself in the video embedded below, courtesy of the Lunar Lion:

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About the Author

Bobby Chen

Writer and photographer, helping tell the many stories of the Penn State community.

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