SAR's Mars team may upstage Nasa
A SPACE mission using advanced sampling equipment developed by Hong Kong scientists could upstage the Americans in the search for signs of life on Mars after the loss of two Nasa spacecraft.
The disappearance of the Mars Polar Lander this month and its sister craft the Climate Orbiter in September has thrown the US space agency's Mars exploration programme into disarray.
The agency cancelled a 2001 mission, making the earliest possible date to Mars for the Americans in 2003.
By contrast, the launch of the European Space Agency's Mars Express - involving scientists and engineers from 13 European countries and Hong Kong - has been finalised for lift-off in 2003.
The mission will collect soil and rock samples both underground and on the surface with the SAR team tasked to develop all the territorial sampling tools.
'Nasa's recent failures make our mission all the more critical,' said team leader and dentist Ng Tze-chuen. 'This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.' Leading team members include Chan Chiu-cheung, a private instrumentation graphics specialist, Polytechnic University precision machinery expert Yu Chun-ho, and university engineer Professor Yung Kai-leung.
The mission's sampling prototypes are being made at the Polytechnic University's industrial centre.
They include a drill, a grinder, an underground soil sampling mole and a corer, which will be used to insert and extract material from the core of rocks on Mars' equator.
The Hong Kong group is working as part of a larger British group that will build Beagle 2, the lander carrying the SAR tools.
Beagle 2 project manager and University of Leicester space science researcher Mark Sims said: 'The Hong Kong team is almost certainly one of the few teams in the world working outside a space agency to develop novel and small tools for sample collection on Mars, and certainly the only team led by a dentist.' Mars Express is scheduled to launch in May or June 2003, and the spacecraft is expected to arrive in late December.
If it works, the mission will be the first successful landing of a spacecraft on Mars since the Nasa Pathfinder in 1997, which did not carry out underground soil sampling.
The Hong Kong group is seeking funding from private sponsors. Details about the Mars Express mission are available at beagle2.open.ac.ukbeagle2/mars01.htm