Crashed on Mars? Then shoot for the moon

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 March, 2006, 12:00am

Mainland space programme likely to enlist Hong Kong researchers to help build sampling equipment

Two Hong Kong scientists are being recruited by the mainland space programme to help China land on the moon by 2012.

Dentist Ng Tze-chuen and Polytechnic University professor Yung Kai-leung met top-level officials in Beijing last week to discuss the possibility of getting the scientists to help build drills, claws and micro-sampling equipment for the Chang'e project.

If the plans are finalised, this will be the first time the mainland space programme - controlled by the Central Military Commission and the People's Liberation Army - has gone outside state-run companies for equipment and advice.

'They want an all-Chinese team. We have the experience in micro-sampling and they know us from the Beagle 2 project - the only fully Chinese-produced tool to land on any planet,' Dr Ng said.

'If they want, we are willing to do the project for free as a contribution to the motherland. This will be my retirement project and my chance at redemption for Beagle 2.'

Dr Ng and Professor Yung designed sampling equipment for the 2003 European Space Agency's Beagle 2 mission to Mars, which saw the vessel crash-land on the planet on Christmas Day 2003.

The scientists, who believe they have more than a 90 per cent chance at landing the project, said political issues need to be sorted out before work can begin.

'They have never gone outside state-run companies before, and they need to work out the procedure. Senior officials in the space programme have told us to only worry about the science, and to leave the politics up to them,' said Professor Yung.

'They will arrange things through the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and the Hong Kong government. It feels great to be helping China. Their attitude towards us is friendlier than that of foreign space agency officials.'

When the deal is finalised, the Hong Kong scientists will be in charge of building modified drills to be installed onto both the Lander and the Lunar Rover.

In addition, a claw - similar to the one used on Beagle 2 - for the rover will be constructed. There is also discussion about creating tools for retrieving samples off the surface of the moon.

'I cannot reveal the reasons for collecting these samples, but just because US scientists didn't find something on the samples in the past doesn't mean that China will not. Different sections of the moon may hold different clues,' said Professor Yung.

The use of Hong Kong scientists will help the China National Space Administration (CNSA) reduce the time required to prepare for the project.

The Chang'e project will consist of three segments - orbiting, landing and return - and was originally planned for 2017. However, with the United States planning to return to the moon in 2018, it seems that mainland officials are moving the project up.

'The mainland wants to make sure that everything goes according to plan. Failure is not an option,' Dr Ng said.

Professor Yung added: 'We will work on the landing and the return. We have designed soil sampling and storage equipment before.

'Each piece of equipment needs to be tailor-made using more than 100 types of material. But we have the experience, so we can make sure no errors occur.

'This can dramatically reduce the time needed to build the necessary equipment.'

The department of industrial and systems engineering professor said the CNSA will need to make a decision by the middle of next year at the latest. Meanwhile, the local scientists will continue to meet officials regularly.

'[After the Beagle 2 incident], this is the best thing that could have happened. This is another chance for us. It is the best thing we could have hoped for,' said Professor Yung.

'This would be the most interesting project that I have worked on. The moon has always been a source of wonder for Chinese people. We can go look for traces left by Chang'e, to see if there is any truth to the legends.'

Chang'e is the Chinese goddess of the moon.