Mars tool scientists plan party for blastoff

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 May, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 May, 2003, 12:00am

Hong Kong scientists who developed rock sampling tools for a European space mission to Mars are planning a late-night champagne party to celebrate the historic blast-off, scheduled for Tuesday.

For the five principal researchers and their co-workers, crunch time will come at 1.45am Hong Kong time, when a Russian-made rocket will take off from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. With the mission's chances of success estimated at just 30 per cent, the team of Polytechnic University engineers and precision machine-makers - including a dentist - will have an anxious weekend.

The group originally planned to travel to the Kazak space base, but the Sars outbreak deterred them. A last-minute delay due to technical problems is also possible. The initial take-off date of late May has already been pushed back.

The Hong Kong group plans to stay up late with a cheese and wine party to watch the launch on BBC and a live internet broadcast set up by the European Space Agency (ESA).

They will be watching from the university's industrial centre, where their rock corer-grinder and scoop for the Mars mission were made.

'The launch and landing are the two most dangerous phases of any space mission. You can imagine we are experiencing some anxiety over events we can't control, as it's something we have invested much time and effort in,' said project leader and independent instrument designer Ng Tze-chuen.

The group has spent the better part of seven years on the joint project with the ESA. It is the agency's most ambitious effort yet to test for the possibility of past and present microscopic life forms on the red planet.