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PolyU gears up for Sino-Russian Interplanetary Space Mission

PolyU is working closely with the Russian Space Agency in designing a state-of-the-art space tool which will be carried onboard a Russian spacecraft for the Red Planet in the 2009 Sino-Russian Space Mission.

The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) is working closely with the well-established Russian Space Agency in designing a state-of-the-art space tool which will be carried onboard a Russian spacecraft for the Red Planet in the 2009 Sino-Russian Space Mission – the first strategic interplanetary collaboration between China and Russia.

This historical mission also marks the first interplanetary space mission by Russia since the dissolution of the former Soviet Union. This is also the first attempt in the history of mankind to land on the moon of a planet other than the Earth. This is also the first ever interplanetary sample return mission, and PolyU has been entrusted with the responsibility of designing a mission-critical space tool known as the "Soil Preparation System" (SOPSYS).

Dr Alexander V Zakharov, Chief Scientist of the Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Science and Project Scientist of the Phobos-Soil project, has made a special trip to the University this week and discussed stringent requirements for testing the qualifying model of this tool with PolyU engineering scientists working on the project.

The PolyU-developed sophisticated device weighs merely 400 grams and measures slightly larger than a cigarette pack. It will be capable of grinding and sifting Phobos rock to the size of less than 1mm in diameter for in situ analysis by the Lander. This procedure is considered a crucial step in understanding the evolution of the universe and in searching for possible signs of life on the extraterrestrial planet.

The aerospace authorities of the two nations agreed to jointly probe Mars and its innermost moon Phobos, following the signing of space collaboration agreement as witnessed by Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Vladimir Putin on 26 March 2007. According to mission schedule, Russia will launch an explorer carrying a Chinese satellite and a lander installed with PolyU-made device to collect samples of Phobos soil.

The objectives of this inter-planetary space mission are to collect soil samples from Phobos, a satellite of Mars and to bring the samples back to Earth for comprehensive scientific research into Phobos, Mars and Martian space.

This collaboration with Russian Space Agency is made possible with the unremitting efforts of PolyU Fellow Dr Ng Tze-chuen, who is a dentist by profession; and Prof. Yung Kai-leung, Associate Head of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering. They have put much effort in negotiating with space authorities and showed their experience of developing space tools and working with the Russian Space Agency and European Space Agency. SOPSYS is designed and manufactured by Prof. Yung and engineers of PolyU's Industrial Centre, with the full support of the Centre's Director Dr Chris Wong Ho-ching. The system is currently near the final stage of development, and will be ready for the mission by the end of this year.

The University has a wealth of experience in developing space tools and for space agencies over the years. The development of space tool by PolyU researchers can be dated back to 1995 with the launch of the Space Holiner Forceps for Russian astronauts working on the MIR Space Station. The Holinser Forceps, which function like a pair of dental forceps, were developed by PolyU engineers from a concept initiated by Dr Ng. The idea was further developed into the Space Forceps System which consists of 70 inter-connectable components for used by astronauts in space. In 1995, four sets of Holinser Forceps were ordered by the Russian Space Agency for use by astronauts in precision soldering at the MIR Space Station.

In 2003, PolyU scientists also developed the Mars Rock Corer which was carried onboard the Beagle 2 Lander in a spacecraft of the European Space Agency's Mars Express Mission. Although the Beagle 2 Lander reportedly crashed on the surface of Mars, but Dr Ng and PolyU researchers never give up their dream for space exploration.

Arthur Chan | ResearchSEA
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