HK students join fight to safeguard planet

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 March, 2008, 12:00am

Two Hong Kong students have taken up the cudgels to help the Earth stave off cosmic destruction. Peter Weiss, a systems engineering doctorate student at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and PhD student Winnie Leung of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology have come up with a creative solution to protect the Earth from wayward rocks. Their ingenious design won an honourable mention as the 'Most Innovative Student Proposal' in an international cosmic design competition late last month.

Organised by the US Planetary Society, The Apophis Mission Design Competition invited participants to plan a mission to rendezvous with and 'tag' a potentially dangerous near-Earth asteroid. Apophis, an asteroid with a diameter of 320m, was used as the mission's target as it will swing by Earth at a distance of about 30,000km in 2009. The fly-by will change the asteroid's orbit and there is a small chance (about 1 in 5,000) that it will hit the Earth when it returns in 2036. Together with independent researcher Ng Tze-chuen, the pair designed an asteroid surveillance satellite system named after Chinese mythical god of archery Houyi.

In order to bring Houyi to Apophis' orbit, the team envisioned a piggy-back lift with a larger space mission with a 'drop-off' en route. The satellite will travel in parallel with the asteroid and calculate its chances of hitting Earth by observing the body with optical instruments.