Surface Sampling and Packing System work was led by Professor Yung Kai-leung.
Credit: PolyU

China’s Chang’e-5 lunar sample return capsule is expected to touch down in China’s Inner Mongolia region next week.

If successful, Chang’e-5 would be the first robotic lunar-sample return mission since 1976 – Luna-24 carried out by the former Soviet Union.

Group photo of Professor Yung Kai-leung (middle) and his research team from PolyU’s Industrial Center.
Credit: PolyU

For Chang’e-5 the goal is to bring back up to 4.4 pounds (two kilograms) of Moon samples via robotic means.

The Moon sampling mission adopted two methods of lunar surface sampling: one using a robotic arm for multiple-point surface sample collections, and the other to drill underground.

The PolyU-developed system successfully completed the automatic sample collection and packaging on the lunar surface.
Credit: PolyU

Loose and sticky regolith

A research team at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) developed and manufactured the mission’s “Surface Sampling and Packing System,” in collaboration with the China Academy of Space Technology.

Tasked in 2011 to develop and fabricate the system, a team was led by Professor Yung Kai-leung, with a group of experts working on the effort from PolyU’s Industrial Center.

Sample cannister lowered into top of Chang’e-5’s ascender.
Credit: Xinhua/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Consisting of two samplers for collecting loose and sticky forms of lunar regolith, two near-field cameras, as well as a packaging and sealing system, the system has more than 400 components constructed in different materials including titanium alloy, aluminum alloy and stainless steel. That makes the instruments light in weight but at the same time durable and strong enough to withstand the harsh space environment, according to a PolyU statement.

The two samplers are more than a tool to acquire lunar regolith. They were also used to pick up and move the sample container from the lander and deposit Moon collectibles into the Chang’e-5 ascender vehicle – the module that lofted the samples into lunar orbit for transfer into the orbiter/returner vehicle.

China’s Chang’e-5 lunar mission will attempt to haul back to Earth samples of the Moon.

Sampler A – Around 35 centimeters in length, Sampler A, in the shape of a shovel, is specifically engineered to gather loose regolith. The vibration and impact during the closing of the sampler is designed to dislodge excessive debris, chisel away large pieces of regolith, tightly enclose the samples and precisely deposit the selected samples into the container without contaminating the surrounding.

Ascender is discarded after transfer of lunar collectibles in this artist’s depiction.

— Sampler B – Around 30 centimeters in length, Sampler B is used for collecting sticky samples by coring into the ground with teeth-like metal flaps when opened. It captured the targeted samples through the closing of these metal flaps. The piston inside the sampler pushes the sticky samples into the container during depositing of the sample when the flaps gradually open.

Photo taking during surface sampling.
Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Near-field Cameras – Heat resistant up to 130 degree Celsius, a near-field camera is attached to each sampler. These cameras yield a monitoring and vision guidance function to help select scientifically valuable lunar samples. The vision guidance function also enabled the sampler o deposit the samples into the container, grip the container and precisely transfer it into the ascender.

Sealing and Packaging System – Weighing 1.5 kilograms, of which the sample container weighs only 360 grams and was used to seal and store the lunar samples for retuning to Earth. This system includes deployment of a funnel to protect the sample container from contamination when the lunar regolith was deposited and a sweeping action to brush away excessive sample to ensure the container lid could be closed properly.

Following fiery reentry, sample capsule is to land in Mongolia.
Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Complex chain of tasks

PolyU’s Yung underscores the pride he and his team felt to be part of the ground-breaking lunar sample accomplishment.

“Collecting a large amount of lunar samples via robotic means was unprecedented. From research, through design to manufacturing, the development of this system has required a very high level of innovation, precision and reliability,” Yung said in a statement. “A small glitch anywhere in the complex chain of necessary tasks could have instantly negated all the costly efforts made by those involved in the mission.”

The Surface Sampling and Packing System will be used for the Chang’e-6 lunar mission as well.

Go to this newly released video showing the sampling technology at:

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