A space research team from the local Polytechnic University (PolyU) has done Hong Kong proud. It was recently chosen to develop space tools for a Russian mission to explore the Martian moon Phobos.
||Peter Weiss (left), Prof Yung Kai-leung and Dr TC Ng are the brains behind the tiny Hong Kong invention that can change the world
The Russian spacecraft scheduled for lift-off in 2009, will deploy a lander on the surface of Phobos to study its geological features, collect samples with a sophisticated device called the Soil Preparation System (SOPSYS) which will grind and sieve soil and pebbles into fine particles for in-situ analysis.
"The Russians know our track record. They realise that Hong Kong is the world centre in micro planetary sampling technology," said team member Dr TC Ng, a dentist by profession.
The other members of the team include Prof Yung Kai-leung, Associate Head of PolyU's Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, robotics specialist Peter Weiss from Germany and PolyU engineers under the directorship of Dr Chris Wong.
Designed and made in Hong Kong, the SOPSYS weighs a mere 230 grams, is slightly larger than a cigarette pack and is made of titanium. "It is certainly one of the lightest grinders in the world. We do not know of any device that can grind stones with this weight," said Prof Yung.
He added that PolyU is immensely honoured to be representing China in this Phobos-Grunt project (grunt is Russian for soil) following the recent signing of a space collaboration agreement between the two countries witnessed by Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
This is not the first time that PolyU has developed space tools. In 2003, PolyU scientists developed and produced the Rock Corer for Beagle 2 in a spacecraft of the European Space Agency's Mars Express Mission which reportedly crashed on Mars.
Both Dr Ng and Prof Yung are stoic. They said it was difficult to predict anything with interplanetary flights. "Anything can happen when you are flying six to nine months at the speed of more than 30 times the speed of sound," said Prof Yung. Both scientific researchers said past failures will not deter them as researchers. "The will to challenge the unknown is there and it spurs us on."
Dr Ng in particular is "space struck" and will simply not give up until he sees a "gram of soil from another planet". The 54 year old dentist who has been around the world nearly 300 times and who has been designing his own dental tools for 20 years, invented the Space Holinser Forceps with the help of PolyU designers – the forerunner of the Mars Rock Corer. It functions like a pair of dental forceps and Russian cosmonauts used four pairs of Space Holinser Forceps in 1995 to solder wires onboard the Mir Space Station which orbited Earth for 15 years (1986-2001).
The Hong Kong PolyU team is proving to the world that the city is not just a successful commercial business hub through its "grinding" efforts to understand the solar system.
Team member German robotics expert, Peter Weiss, who had previously worked in the German Space Agency (Deutsches Zentrum fuer Luft-und Raumfahrt) and is currently doing his doctorate in PolyU explained it best.
"Professor Yung has extensive experience in space sampling tools and he has created a real centre of expertise in this field in PolyU. The university has an amazing track record, and the equipment PolyU has is comparable to the best I have seen in any university around the world and I have studied in Munich, Paris and Boston.
Opportunity 'out there'
"If we continue with challenging projects in the field of planetary sampling, who knows one day, 'designed and made in Hong Kong' space tools might be applied in the whole solar system," said Mr Weiss.
His words are echoed by the redoubtable Dr Ng. "I want to send a message to the next generation that if I can do it, anyone can. Just follow your dreams, no matter how spacey they may be."
Hong Kong Polytechnic University