Expand the horizons of scientific endeavour

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 December, 2003, 12:00am

Mars, the red planet, has long been an object of human fascination. This year, its orbit is so close to Earth that it has been possible to see the planet with the naked eye. For astronomers and other scientists, the presence of dust storms and craters only makes Mars more intriguing. Whether the planet ever supported life or has the conditions necessary to do so now are questions they have been asking for a long time. With the probable landing of the Beagle 2 probe today, and with the other probes now on their way to Mars, our knowledge of this mystery planet is set to grow.

For people in Hong Kong, the Beagle2's landing will have added significance, for it carries rock-sampling tools created here. The tools, a drill and a scoop-like device, are the creation of a team based at Polytechnic University and are crucial to the mission. Samples will be brought back to the Beagle to be tested for signs of life in an on-board laboratory.

The story of the tools' appearance on the Beagle 2 is one of inspiration and persistence. The team led by Ng Tze-chuen sent tools on the Russian Mir mission in 1995. But institutional support for the Beagle 2 drill was not immediately forthcoming when the scientists set their sights on the Mars mission. Wanting to make a contribution, the group persisted, and we are grateful they did.

In many ways, the spirit of the Hong Kong team is reflected in the entire Beagle2 mission. It was inspired badgering from a British meteorite specialist named Colin Pillinger that forced the European Space Agency to agree to land a probe on Mars from the Mars Express satellite - whereas the agency was content to observe the planet from a distance. Mr Pillinger was also given no express guarantee of funding and little time to prepare the probe for launch this June. He and his fellow scientists accomplished what they have so far by looking for alternative sources of support and sponsorship, though the British government and ESA did eventually provide some backing. Named after the boat that carried Charles Darwin to his discoveries about evolution, the Beagle 2 has in England already become a symbol of what can be done with a little dedication.

Even for well-funded projects, landing on Mars is a perilous business. Hong Kong will be waiting, too, for news that the probe has landed safely and begun its work. For their part in the mission, Dr Ng and his colleagues deserve praise and recognition. As we contemplate their contribution to the project, perhaps we should think about whether it is time to reassess our research funding priorities. Hong Kong has taken the practical approach of supporting work that has local applications. The project that gave birth to the Beagle 2 sampling drill seems to be a case for a more flexible approach.