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Life on Mars? Award-wining PolyU device could dig up the answer

"I believe that the knowledge we have accumulated from the research over the years will be useful for future scientific development."

One of the most intriguing questions we have yet to answer is whether life exists in the universe outside of planet Earth.

Prof. Yung Kai-leung, Associate Head of Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, and his team at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University are among the few to have actually made the attempt. The opportunity came when they were invited by the Russian Federal Space Agency to develop a device that would sift through the soil of Mars’ innermost moon, Phobos, looking for signs of life.

Called the Soil Preparation System (SOPSYS), the device was used for the Phobos Grunt mission to Mars in November 2011. The mission also carried China’s first Mars satellite, Yinghuo-1.

SOPSYS was capable of grinding rocks on Phobos down to less than one millimetre in diameter for in-situ analysis and bringing them to Earth for the study of the solar system and the formation of Mars. Weighing merely 400 grams and slightly larger than a cigarette pack, SOPSYS was made to extremely precise specifications. It had to be capable of withstanding minimal gravity, vibration, cosmic dust and radiation, as well as daily temperature differences ranging from plus 180°C to minus 100°C.

Unfortunately, the Phobos Grunt mission experienced a failure and crashed back to Earth on 15 January 2012. Nevertheless, Prof. Yung remains optimistic. “I believe that the knowledge we have accumulated from the research over the years will be useful for future scientific development,” he said. “I think no other university in Asia has got the experience that PolyU has in relation to actual space missions.”  

Despite the failed mission, the Soil Preparation System designed and built by PolyU will be redeployed in upcoming Sino-Russian missions to explore Mars’ moon.

“As we study the universe with more advanced tools, we will learn new and exciting things, and wonderful discoveries will be on the way.  It’s fascinating to be a part of the epic journeys into the unknown,” said Prof. Yung.

In recognition of the engineering achievements made with SOPSYS, the research team was awarded a Grand Prize and a Gold Medal with the Congratulations of Jury at the 42nd International Exhibition of Inventions of Geneva in 2014.

PolyU gears up the scientific development of the country

The benefits derived from some PolyU research and innovations can also have implications that are very far reaching though not immediately obvious. A case in point is the scientific development of the Soil Preparation System (SOPSYS) for the Phobos Grunt mission to Mars in November 2011. Prof. Yung Kai-leung, Associate Head of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, and his team were invited by the Russian Federal Space Agency to develop the device to sift through the soil of Mars' innermost moon, Phobos, looking for signs of life. Even though the Phobos Grunt mission crashed back to Earth in 2012, the effort put into SOPSYS was worthwhile. Prof. Yung explained that "the knowledge we have accumulated from the research over the years will be useful for future scientific development". This was certainly recognized when SOPSYS received the Grand Prize and a Gold Medal with the Congratulations of Jury at the 42nd International Exhibition of Inventions of Geneva in 2014. Although PolyU's ground-breaking scientific development projects have received many awards over the years, even more important is the lasting impact they have on the advancement of knowledge and mankind. Experienced in international space exploration, the PolyU team has developed many flight-qualified space instruments over the years which facilitates the scientific development of the country. Also, our start-of-art laboratories are well-equipped, facilitating the development of scientific research. At PolyU, we are continuously pushing frontiers of knowledge with impact research and breakthroughs to solve problems, create hopes and benefit mankind. We save lives, boost economic efficiency, foster sustainability and open up new horizons in space. We change the world for the better.