PolyU is renowned for its contributions to space exploration

[Sponsored article] Research teams at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) have been involved in many ground-breaking projects. But it’s the university’s contribution to space exploration that has captured the public’s imagination.

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[Sponsored article] Research teams at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) have been involved in many ground-breaking projects. But it’s the university’s contribution to space exploration that has captured the public’s imagination.

Ingenious tools and devices, conceived and built to the most precise specifications at the university, have been on board high-profile missions to the moon, and to Mars. The tools and devices have brought back critical data to add to our knowledge of the solar system.

Now, with a string of successes and a growing international reputation, the university wants its multi-disciplinary approach to inspire new breakthroughs in space exploration. It hopes that China’s lunar programme, and other space agencies, will be able to make use of its discoveries.

“A conceptual design usually originates with one of our professors, who make a point of knowing what future missions are aiming to achieve,” says Professor Alex Wai Ping-kong, PolyU’s vice president for research development. “If an idea looks viable, that leads to an extensive process of planning, prototyping, and testing. Much of the practical work is undertaken by engineers and systems specialists at the PolyU Industrial Centre.”

The key to success is being able to meet the functional specifications set out by the mission. These specifications spell out the exact performance requirements for every tool or moving part, and set the parameters for weight, size, power usage, temperature range, and mechanical interfaces. The aim is to ensure that even the smallest items that are sent into space will function as planned.

“There is so much at stake. If you supply a tool, you must ensure there is no possibility of it going wrong,” Wai says. “The development process is an iterative effort. We start from proof of principle, then we demonstrate feasibility. We then produce a brand-new tool which can be relied on to do its job in untried, low-gravity conditions.”

PolyU’s first notable success occurred back in the early 1990s. It worked on the Space Holinser Forceps system, an easy-to-manipulate hand-held tool used by Russian cosmonauts on the Mir space station.

In the early 2000s, it designed and developed the Mars Rock Corer for collecting samples from just below the surface of Mars rock. The Corer was deployed on the Beagle 2 lander on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission.

That led to the development and assembly of a similarly advanced and technically intricate Soil Preparation System, or SOPSYS. This was selected for the Sino-Russian Phobos-Grunt mission to Mars in November 2011. Weighing just 400 grams, and slightly larger than a cigarette pack, it could grind and sift rocks from the Martian moon Phobos to particles less than one millimetre in diameter. This would allow for in-situ analysis and transport back to Earth for further study of possible signs of life.

“On Phobos, you need energy from solar panels to get the instruments moving,” Wai says. “Unfortunately, there was a faulty guidance system, so the mission never got out of Earth orbit. That showed again how difficult these space projects can be. One problem can result in an overall failure.”   

A recent triumph was the Camera Pointing System, a robotic arm jointly developed by PolyU and the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST). It touched down on the moon on 14 December 2013 aboard the Chang’e 3 lander. Lightweight and extremely compact, it was crucial for capturing clear images around the landing site, which were then beamed back to Earth. Significantly, this was also the first instrument for China’s lunar exploration programme made in Hong Kong.

As such, it also pointed the way to closer ongoing collaboration with CAST’s publicly listed subsidiary China Aerospace International Holdings. The prime objective is to establish a platform which can address China’s technical needs in aerospace engineering by leveraging PolyU’s research strengths and proven experience.

The co-operation will entail a joint laboratory to study intelligent systems and pioneer practical applications in the field of aerospace. In due course, it will also mean more exchange visits, professional programmes, lectures by eminent speakers, and funding support for new research initiatives.

“Apart from the precision engineering used to develop space tools, our experts in mechanical engineering have been working on systems for vibration control and improved stability in space missions,” Wai says. “The university has a multi-disciplinary involvement in space exploration. The PolyU Industrial Centre has the facilities, equipment, and technology to support staff and students in everything from engineering and process design to fabrication, system integration and product testing.”