• Wed
  • Oct 22, 2014
  • Updated: 8:48am

A passion for the last frontiers

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 September, 2005, 12:00am

My dental practice pays the bills for my family and finances my research, but science, or space exploration, is my real passion. People often ask why I spend so much time and money travelling and working with overseas space agencies, without receiving a dime for my work.

It is my meaning in life. I have worked with the Russians on their Mir space station, and with the European Space Agency (ESA), which deployed tools from Hong Kong - I helped design them - to Mars aboard the Beagle 2 landing craft.

I am again working with the Russians on their 2009 project to Phobos, the larger of Mars' two moons. We will design and produce the sampling tools. The Russians hope to retrieve samples and return them to Earth. I will have another chance to work with the ESA on a Mars project, scheduled at the end of this decade.

The Beagle 2 spacecraft carrying Hong Kong's tools crashed and was probably destroyed on Christmas Day 2003. The new Mars project, called ExoMars, will probably use our tools again, so I am very excited and impatient.

For a very long time, I tried to work with the US space agency Nasa, but I made no headway despite years of trying to build relations and trust. That was probably a mistake. I am now taking aim at the mainland.

China has announced ambitious space projects, but it is still inexperienced in a lot of related fields, so there is a lot of room for development and growth. I hope to do better than I did with the Americans.

I am also working with Beagle 2's chief engineer, Shaun Whitehead of England, to design sampling tools for the Egyptian government. It has formed a partnership with National Geographic on a mission to explore several hidden chambers in the Great Pyramid at Giza.

Singaporean engineers are the project leaders, and they have built a remote-controlled rover that could be inserted into the pyramid. Shaun has built some very interesting, tiny robots that could help with collecting samples inside the pyramid.

We have been waiting for a long time for final approval from the Egyptians, who are perhaps preoccupied by more pressing issues. My projects are divided into space, land and water. Mars is obviously space, the pyramid is land. I am designing a robotic claw to be used for deep-sea exploration by Ifremer, a leading marine institute. I would like to name the claw le coeur d'une femme [a woman's heart], if Ifremer would let me. The titanium claw, slightly larger than a human hand and weighing less than 1kg, will be attached to a robotic arm on Victor 6000, an unmanned submarine made by Ifremer. Victor can travel down to 6,000 metres, and is one of the deepest divers ever built.

I hope the Russian project will be my last in space, because if it takes off, then I will have achieved what I have set out to do. There is still land and sea to explore, which increasingly holds my attention.

Yes, I am proud of what I do. But my medical colleagues don't really understand my interest. They joke about it, but I am used to it. My children [three in secondary schools] do not care about my work. I tried to talk to them, to explain what I do, but they always look so bored.

My wife supports what I do, kind of - or rather, she tolerates my folly. I am very grateful to her.

Ng Tze-chuen is a dentist, but in the past two decades, he has worked with international space agencies to design precision sampling and experimental tools for use in spacecraft and on the surface of Mars


For unlimited access to:

SCMP.com SCMP Tablet Edition SCMP Mobile Edition 10-year news archive




SCMP.com Account