Secret work of PolyU team helped power China moon mission

Top News | Wallis Wang and AP 18 Dec 2020

A Polytechnic University research team that developed one of the key systems for China's lunar mission, which returned to Earth yesterday, says it has been keeping a low profile - something that helped all its hard work avoid being destroyed during last year's unrest.

The Chang'e 5 moon probe landed in the northern region of Inner Mongolia in the early hours of yesterday, completing its return to Earth and bringing back the first lunar samples since the 1970s.

The PolyU team, at a news conference yesterday, said its lab was untouched despite the campus siege, enabling it to finish its surface sampling and packing system that collected samples automatically on the moon surface.

Yung Kai-leung, the university's chair professor of precision engineering and associate head of its department of industrial and systems engineering, said the team was worried the system would be damaged during the protests as the research was related to Beijing.

Yung said the team had to keep a low profile and kept the location of the lab secret.

Due to travel restrictions amid the pandemic, the research team could not go to Beijing and had to stay in Hong Kong to monitor if the system worked on the moon.

Yung said the system collected soil samples three times on the moon.

During the third collection, the operator dug deeper and collected more samples than expected, but the team had prepared for such situations and successfully removed the excess soil to complete the task.

He said the whole sampling process took more than 20 hours and the team was finally relieved after the can containing soil on the moon was sealed. Yung added: "We were celebrating like crazy."

Chang'e 5, the lunar capsule, returned to Earth with the first fresh rock samples from the moon in more than 40 years, offering the possibility of new insights into the history of the solar system and marking a new landmark for China's rapidly advancing space program.

The capsule landed just before 2am in the Siziwang district of the Inner Mongolia region, the China National Space Administration reported.

The capsule had earlier separated from its orbiter module and performed a bounce off Earth's atmosphere to reduce its speed before passing through and floating to the ground on parachutes.

Following recovery, the capsule and its cargo of samples were flown to the space program's campus in Beijing to begin the process of disassembly and analysis, the space administration said.

The mission achieved new firsts for the lunar exploration program in collecting samples, launching a vehicle from the moon's surface, and docking it with the capsule to return the samples to Earth, the administration said.

"As our nation's most complex and technically groundbreaking space mission, Chang'e 5 has achieved multiple technical breakthroughs and represents a landmark achievement," it said.

Two of the Chang'e 5's four modules set down on the moon on December 1 and collected about two kilograms of samples by scooping them from the surface and drilling two meters into the moon's crust.

The samples were deposited in a sealed container that was carried back to the return module by an ascent vehicle.

The spacecraft's return marked the first time scientists have obtained fresh samples of lunar rocks since the former Soviet Union's Luna 24 robot probe in 1976.

President Xi Jinping, in a statement read out at the Beijing Aerospace Control Center, called it a major achievement that marked a great step forward for China's space industry.

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