A University of Science and Technology team has beaten top international competitors in a contest to calculate a complex satellite trajectory around Jupiter's four main moons.
The four Hongkongers' entry took second place in the 6th Global Trajectory Optimisation Competition, organised by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of NASA, beating teams of aerospace researchers and engineers worldwide.
The challenge accepted by 34 teams was to calculate a spaceship trajectory, flying from Jupiter, to pass near Jupiter's four largest moons - Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto - and map all their surfaces. The spaceship has limited fuel and a time limit of four years. Some commentators called the challenge "almost impossibly" complicated, yet the teams had just one month to study the problem and calculate their answer.
The Hongkongers scored 308 points of the maximum 324, finishing just three points behind the winning team from Italy.
The Hongkongers, all second-year physics students, were delighted to beat teams from the US Aerospace Corporation and Beijing's Tsinghua University, among others.
"I have been interested in space ever since I was small, but the stars are very far away," said team member Lawrence Chu Kin-chiu, 22. "This project makes me feel like I have a closer relationship with the cosmos."
Cathie So Tsz-yan, 19, said: "I set aside my dream of becoming an astronaut when I was younger, but now I'm starting to think maybe I could engage in relevant work in this field."
The contest divided each moon into 32 "faces", much like the segmented surface of a soccer ball, for a total of 128 faces. The Hongkongers' orbit visited 115 of them, on 141 fly-bys.
The trajectory from Italy mapped each moon in turn, in contrast to the Hongkongers' strategy of switching from moon to moon and back again.
The contestants' work may be used in the 2020 Europa Jupiter System Mission, a joint Nasa-ESA effort, to explore Europa.
"Scientists are interested in knowing about [Europa] because there may be water under its ice, which means life may exist," said Yam Chit-hong, at the university's Centre for Space Science Research, who led student team.
The centre's director, Professor Chan Kwing-lam, said the government had not done enough to support space science.
"The aerospace industry in China is now at its threshold ... if Hong Kong can train capable talents in this field, they can have opportunities [to enter state-level laboratories]," he said.
The story was amended on 17 December, 2012 for the following corrections: the competition in the story was organised by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of NASA, not jointly by NASA and ESA; the students from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology were collaborating with five researchers from the ESA in the competition; the spaceship trajectory should be "flying from Jupiter" instead of from the Earth.