reaching for the stars

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 July, 2006, 12:00am

He's famed in Hong Kong for helping design its contribution to space discovery - tools for the Mir space station and European Mars missions. Ng Tze-chuen recalls in our new weekly series the highs and lows of 30 years working with celebrated scientists, battling bureaucracy ... and being tailed by spies

I found myself in Noordwijk, in the Netherlands, sometime in 1996. After endless trips to the European Space Agency in Paris, I managed to secure an appointment with Michael Eiden, a top agency scientist, and an invitation to give a presentation on our new design concept to collect micro-samples on the surface of Mars.

That night, while dining at my hotel, someone I had never met before tapped on my shoulder and asked a strange question: 'Dr Ng, how deep can it go?'

It took a while to realise this was Dr Eiden, the man I was supposed to meet after my presentation. He was asking the depth at which we could sample under the surface of Mars.

'Any depth you like,' I said. Actually, I had no idea of our capability. But the question and the greeting was a positive sign of what I could expect for the next day. The ESA consisted of about 15 countries, with an international outlook that was willing to accept spin-offs from outsiders.

Dr Eiden and his colleague Pierre Coste were the agency's experts responsible for conducting micro-sampling research a decade in advance of the Mars mission. Mars Express was tasked to study the possibility of life on the planet, and it was necessary to sample soil and rocks to search for biochemical signatures of past microscopic life forms.

Dr Coste, a walking encyclopedia in sampling, read every single word of our research documents and pinpointed even very minor mistakes. The two took me to lunch before my presentation at the ESA. The three of us exchanged the most outlandish ideas about planetary sampling. We were on the same wavelengths.

The concept we developed is 'passive self-adaptive gripping', meaning our device would be attached to the end of a robotic arm to grip tiny objects while automatically adjusting to the object's centre of gravity with minimum force.

This gripper concept was invented by our Hong Kong team, a concept that Nasa had neglected despite its advances in robotics.

I felt welcomed as a VIP speaker in front of dozens of scientists and engineers. Among the audience was Edoardo Re from Italy, probably the ESA's foremost expert in planetary sampling. He was then designing tiny drills for the comet-chasing satellite Rosetta, which was subsequently launched in 2004.

He is currently involved in planning for the agency's ExoMars mission, scheduled in 2011. For my lecture, he shuttled on a same-day return to Milan.

It took courage for a nobody dentist like me to speak before an audience of PhD space experts and effectively say: 'Throw away your tools and use Hong Kong's devices.' I was amazed they were asking detailed questions that would only be asked if our tools were to be integrated into the overall systems of Mars Express. They were clearly listening.

We were not in the clear yet. I realised there were two research groups competing in the race - the Russians and the Italians were also aiming at sub-soil sampling.

We had to change our strategy. We must modify our designs because we were likely to retrieve powdered rock samples to analyse isotope ratios that are signatures of life forms. We were competing with the likes of Valery Gromov of St Petersburg, a brilliant exploration tool designer who was busy working on a 'mole' to retrieve samples at depths that would be unexposed to lethal ultraviolet radiation on Mars - that is, at depths where micro-organic life forms could conceivably still exist.

One good sign that we might be ahead in the race was that the agency agreed to bypass formal security procedures to show me their blueprint and diagrams and let me take them home.

'Go and design an end-effector ready for testing at the German Space Agency in a few months time,' Dr Coste told me.

This would test the Hong Kong team's ability to design and manufacture ultra precision tools to mission-quality standards.

'Do you want to take up this challenge?' Dr Coste asked as I was glancing through the blueprint. 'Yes,' I said. Some greater force was pushing me to explore the heavens above.