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Penn State University Plans University-Led Lunar Landing

A team of students, researchers and faculty from Penn State University is seeking to make history by becoming the first ever university-led mission to land a spacecraft on the moon.

The Penn State team is currently preparing its spacecraft, dubbed the Lunar Lion, for its targeted launch in December 2015 as part of the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition.

"It's something that Penn State is not only capable of doing but excellent at doing," said Liam Neigh the team's digital media coordinator and a sophomore double major in information sciences and technology and French.

Neigh said the best part of the team is that it takes students from all factions. In addition to engineers, the group welcomes efforts from other students studying other majors, including marketing, law and even theatre.

The Lunar Lion team formed back in 2011, after a group of researchers and professors discussed ways to bring more space research and industry to Penn State said Ajeeth Ibrahim, a public relations lead with the program and master's student studying aerospace engineering.

In order to win the prize, a team must "land a robot safely on the moon, move 500 meters on, above or below the moon's surface and send back high definition images and video," according to the competition's website.

The grand prizewinner of the competition will receive $20 million.

Ibrahim, said if they were to win, the money will go toward setting up a space research institute at the university, as well as funding scholarships towards students who are interested in doing space research.

But regardless of the competition, Ibrahim said the Lunar Lion team is planning on going to the moon.

Ibrahim said the group has accounted for inclement weather in its mission plans and they have identified two possible landing spots on the moon, including just northwest of the Apollo 11 landing site.

"If we have to get delayed for any reason, it's not going to be the end all for the mission," he said. "First of all since we're doing a lunar mission, that perfect window of opportunity comes around every month."

Ibrahim said they're more worried about the landing conditions on the moon than the launch conditions.

When the vehicle lands on the moon's surface, it will need a certain amount of power coming from the sun on the solar panels.

"We've calculated that there's a specific window of opportunity for launching and landing on the lunar surface that allows us to utilize that sun angle," Ibrahim said.

If they miss a particular launch day, their landing day on the moon will be delayed and it could affect their ability to harvest the necessary solar power from the sun.

Thirty-two teams began the competition and now 18 remain, including teams from Italy, Japan, Spain and Brazil. None of the teams are building the actual rocket that launches into space, just the separate vehicle designed to land and roam on the moon.

The team has already passed its biggest test, which is getting a spacecraft that will take them into space. Ibrahim said they have made a down payment on a launch vehicle, thanks in part to a crowd-funding campaign which has raised more than $150,000, that will be separated from the rocket and shot to the moon.

The challenge the group is currently tackling is physically integrating a propulsion and control system so the spacecraft will not crash into the lunar surface.

Behind actually getting into space, Ibrahim said this is their hardest task as they are designing the vehicle to be completely autonomous when it lands on the moon and flies to a second landing site, as part of the contest's requirements.

The Google Lunar XPRIZE isn't just an investment to make money, but rather to make history, Neigh said.

"We have a drive that nobody else has," Neigh said. "We may be young, but we're spunky."