PolyU Professor Yung Kai-leung shows a model of the camera to be fitted on China's first Mars probe. Photo: Handout
PolyU Professor Yung Kai-leung shows a model of the camera to be fitted on China's first Mars probe. Photo: Handout

Hong Kong and mainland Chinese researchers are joining hands in developing a camera for the nation’s first Mars probe scheduled for launch in 2020 at the earliest.

A 20-member team at Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) has been commissioned to design and produce the Mars Landing Surveillance Camera, which will be mounted on the top outer surface of the yet-to-be-christened Chinese Mars probe.

The camera is critical for steering and maneuvering the future probe on the surface of the red planet, as it’s tasked to monitor the deployment status of the rover as well as the solar-panel and antenna systems.

The Mars camera is truly out-of-this-world for such a mission, as it has to be both lightweight – no more than 380 grams – and exceptionally strong and durable to withstand the extreme changes in temperature and radiation during the nine-months space trek from Earth to Mars, and the extremely low temperature on the Mars surface as well.

The camera must also be structurally rigid to tolerate the huge landing-impact shock of 6,200g, that is, 6,200 times the force of Earth’s gravity, and according to PolyU researchers, the camera could be stronger than the “black boxes,” or flight recorders, installed on aircraft.

To put things in perspective, the European Organization for Civil Aviation Equipment specifies that a “black box” must be able to withstand an acceleration force of 3,400g for 6.5 milliseconds.

And despite having a wide-angle field of view – a maximum of 120 degrees horizontally and a maximum of 120 degrees vertically – the Mars camera must also be able to shoot images of extremely low optical distortion.

An artist’s rendering of the Chinese probe on the red planet. Photo: Handout

The camera’s lead designer Professor Yung Kai-leung, of PolyU’s Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, said the biggest challenge would be ensuing a wide field of view with low distortion optics under high impact force and mechanical vibration, but he expressed confidence in being able to deliver such a camera within the next year.

Yung’s team also participated in China’s lunar-exploration program for the development of a camera pointing system for the Chang’e 3 and Chang’e 4 lunar probes, as well as a surface sampling and packing system for Chang’e 5 and Chang’e 6.

The camera project is in support of China’s first Mars probe tentatively scheduled for 2020, which aims to conduct an orbital and surface exploration of the red planet in a single mission, also the first ever such endeavor by the mankind.

PolyU signed a memorandum of understanding on the nation’s Mars exploration project with the China Academy of Space Technology this week.

PolyU is the only tertiary educational institution in Hong Kong with experience in space missions. Its researchers have been involved in a number of international space-exploration projects since the 1990s, including rock corer for the European Space Agency’s 2003 Mars Express Mission, the soil-preparation system for the Sino-Russian Space Mission in 2011, and others.