Funding shortfall threatens SAR space project

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 November, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 November, 1998, 12:00am

Lack of funding is threatening to delay a project by a team of SAR scientists to study the possibility of life on Mars.

Tools designed by a group of engineers led by dentist Ng Tze-chuen have won a place on the European Space Agency's mission to Mars, scheduled for 2003, to collect soil samples to explore the origin of life.

These are specially designed drills and grippers, called 'end-effectors', attached to robotic arms to collect both surface and underground samples. The SAR team is the only one to have been accepted from outside the 13 countries involved in the project.

However, Dr Ng said it needed at least $3 million to deliver the products.

This was despite free assistance from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University's Industrial Centre to manufacture the tools.

'We can still do it without the money, but it would have to be out of our own pockets and our work would be delayed,' he said.

Appeals for funding to the head of the Commission on Innovation and Technology, Professor Tien Chang-lin, have been turned down.

Dr Ng said it was difficult to gain funding from government channels because support was only usually given to projects with local applications. His group is turning to private sources.

The dentist has previously designed forceps successfully used by the Russians for industrial soldering aboard the Mir space station in 1995.

The possibility that life once existed on Mars was raised two years ago when scientists speculated that traces of ancient bacteria caused specific patterns on a Martian meteorite found in Antarctica.

NASA Pathfinder confirmed last year that Mars was once a warm planet on which water flowed.

The European spacecraft that will land on the planet has been named Beagle 2, after the ship on which Charles Darwin made his epoch-making sea voyage in 1831 that led to the formulation of the theory of evolution.