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PolyU develops space instruments for lunar mission

Researchers at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) have developed and manufactured the “Surface Sampling and Packing System”, specifically designed for Chang’e 5, the Nation’s first lunar sample return mission. Following the successful launch of Chang’e 5 by the Long March 5 rocket on 24 November 2020, the Surface Sampling and Packing System is scheduled to commence lunar sampling in early December.

Chang’e 5, the third phase of the Nation’s lunar exploration project, is China’s first space mission to collect and return two-kilogram samples of lunar regolith. The Chang’e 5 spacecraft comprises four modules: an orbiter, an ascender, a lander and a return vehicle.

Transported on the Chang’e 5 lander, the PolyU-developed Surface Sampling and Packing System includes two samplers that can withstand 200 °C for collecting samples of lunar regolith in loose and sticky form, two heat-resistant nearfield cameras for vision guidance during sample acquisition, and a packaging and sealing system for sealing the samples in a container.

Upon completion of sample acquisition on the lunar surface by the PolyU samplers, the robot arm will, through vision guidance, lift the PolyU designed and made container and place it into the ascender. The ascender will then lift off into lunar orbit, dock with the orbiter and transfer the sample container to the return vehicle for the journey back to Earth.

Building on their previous study of the lunar environment and a wealth of experience from several lunar missions, the team started researching and developing the Surface Sampling and Packing System in 2011 and completed the project in 2017. 

The lead professor stated that the return of samples from the moon is technically complex. It takes more than six prototype productions through various stages of space qualification procedures to complete the project, not to mention the pre-production research, system design, discussions and meetings in collaboration with the China Academy of Space Technology. The Surface Sampling and Packing System is one of the most critical components of the Chang’e 5 mission.

In addition to the System itself, the innovative techniques for high-precision high-resolution 3D mapping and geomorphologic analysis of the landing region developed by Professor Bo WU from PolyU’s Department of Land Surveying and Geo-Informatics are important for the characterisation of the landing region, to support decision-making for selecting the final landing site for Chang’e 5.

Joining this historic mission is the team led by Professor YUNG Kai-leung, Sir Sze-yuen Chung Professor in Precision Engineering, Chair Professor of Precision Engineering and Associate Head of Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, PolyU. Dr Robert W.M. TAM, Interim Director of PolyU’s Industrial Centre, is one of the team’s key members.

The PolyU President stated that in the Chang’e 5 lunar exploration project, PolyU’s research team has developed one of the key sets of sampling instruments and made a breakthrough in lunar surface sampling by leveraging its valuable experience in international space projects, its innovative thinking and its cutting-edge technology. It is hoped that, through rigorous scientific study and research excellence, PolyU will continue to make important contributions to Chang’e 6 and other national space missions.

Being the only tertiary institution in Hong Kong that possesses international space qualification experience, PolyU has been contributing to the Nation’s space projects since 2010. As part of the Nation’s lunar exploration programme, Professor YUNG collaborated with the China Academy of Space Technology to develop a “Camera Pointing System” for Chang’e 3 in 2013 and Chang’e 4’s historic landing on the lunar far side in 2019, and a Mars Camera for Tianwen 1 in 2020. The “Surface Sampling and Packing System” will be used for the Chang’e 6 mission as well.

PolyU has actively participated in other space exploration projects, designing and manufacturing several sophisticated space tools in the past decade. These include the “Mars Rock Corer” for the European Space Agency’s 2003 Mars Express Mission and the “Soil Preparation System” for the Sino-Russian Space Mission in 2011.

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