Mars team grounded by virus

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 May, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 May, 2003, 12:00am

Hong Kong scientists have cancelled their trip to witness the launch of Beagle 2

Sars has forced a team of Hong Kong scientists to cancel their trip to Kazakhstan next month to watch the launch of a spacecraft to Mars, which will carry their pioneering tools to sample soils on the planet.

The group of Polytechnic University researchers, led by private dentist and equipment designer Ng Tze-chuen, originally planned to travel with their British counterparts to Russia's Baikonur cosmodrome, deep in the Kazakh steppe.

Dr Ng said members were now worried about Sars and the difficulties they might encounter if they travel abroad. 'Even with the permission to join the party, the Hong Kong team is pulling out because of Sars,' he said.

Instead, the group will watch the blast-off in Hong Kong on a live BBC broadcast during the first week of next month.

The launch of the Russian-made Soyuz-Fregat rocket - carrying the British-made Mars lander Beagle 2 with the Hong Kong equipment inside - will be the second high-profile takeoff at the cosmodrome in as many months. Another Soyuz rocket blasted off at the Kazakh space base carrying an American and a Russian to the International Space Station on April 26.

The Hong Kong team is part of the Mars Express programme, run by the European Space Agency, which co-ordinates scientists and engineers from most of the European Union member countries on the Mars project. Hong Kong is the only non-European team.

The British lander will carry the Hong Kong-made rock corer-grinder. The tiny, multi-functional precision instrument weighs less than 400 grams and will be used to remove dust adhering to Martian rock surfaces as well as drill and extract material from inside rocks. The Hong Kong team has also designed a tiny, back-up 'spoon'. No previous mission to the red planet has obtained a sample from inside a Martian rock.

The Beagle 2 mission, which will start if it lands successfully at the end of December, will last 180 Martian days, or sols (a sol is 37 minutes longer than an Earth day). Its primary mission is to find organic deposits, which could indicate past life forms, or else evidence that no life forms could exist or have existed on Mars.

By gathering samples on the surface of the planet and what lies under it with the Hong Kong tool, an array of state-of-the-art sensors, cameras and chemical analysers will carry out on-site inspection and analysis. The data will be transmitted back to Earth.