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Space

Hong Kong Polytechnic University signs deal to make camera for China’s 2020 Mars probe

Device for spacecraft in groundbreaking mission to red planet will need to cope with temperatures ranging from minus 70 degrees Celsius to 90 degrees Celsius

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 August, 2018, 6:10pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 August, 2018, 8:41pm

The Hong Kong Polytechnic University will play a key role in a groundbreaking Chinese project to send a probe to Mars in 2020 by creating a camera designed to endure extreme temperatures as well as shocks 6,200 times the force of gravity.

Professor Yung Kai-leung, the university’s chair professor of precision engineering, said development of the camera’s technologies would have implications beyond exploring the solar system, from medical robotics to industrial engineering.

“We expect the space project to strengthen our ability in scientific research and in coming up with good designs ... and we also hope to transfer the space technology to civil use,” he said.

In the past decade China has achieved a series of breakthroughs in space exploration, including its first lunar “soft landing” in 2013 with the Chang’e-3 spacecraft and Jade Rabbit rover.

The country is planning to launch a spacecraft to Mars in 2020 with the aim of becoming the first nation to complete an orbital and surface exploration of the red planet in a single mission.

The United States has conducted such explorations in separate missions since the 1970s, and India in 2014 became the first solo Asian country to reach Mars’ orbit.

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Since 2003 Polytechnic University has helped develop soil surveying tools for Mars missions spearheaded by the European Space Agency, and a failed voyage jointly organised by China and Russia. The university also joined hands with the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) to develop a camera system for Chang’e-3.

But Yung said designing a Mars camera would be different and more challenging.

“It takes [days] to go to the moon, but it takes nine months to travel to Mars ... [It will be] a prolonged period of extreme temperatures, radiation and mechanical vibrations,” Yung said.

“The Mars mission will be like putting the camera into a fridge for nine months ... and throwing it onto the street [from a building] and expecting it to work immediately.”

The device will need to cope with temperatures ranging from minus 70 degrees Celsius to 90 degrees Celsius.

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Its weight and size will be similar to ordinary cameras, but materials such as titanium alloy and aluminium alloy will ensure it is extraordinarily durable.

About 10 cameras in total will be installed on the Mars spacecraft, which will consist of an orbiter, a lander and a rover. Yung said the camera to be designed by his team would be one of the most difficult of the 10 to produce, because it was for the lander, which needed to withstand a huge impact.

The camera will help the mainland Chinese scientists in charge of the mission to monitor the landing process, the surrounding environment and movements of the rover, Yung explained.

He also said his team of about 20 researchers must rely on their own scientific research and experience as the specifics of space appliances produced by foreign agencies were confidential.

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The university, represented by its vice-president for research development, Professor Alex Wai Ping-kong, signed an agreement with CAST on Wednesday to collaborate on the Mars camera project.

The work will be mainly funded and tested by the state-owned academy, while the university will produce the device and offer financial support for Yung’s team.

Wai said the deal showed Beijing’s recognition and approval of Hong Kong researchers’ experience and achievements.