reaching for the stars

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 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 weekly series the highs and lows of 30 years working with celebrated scientists, battling bureaucracy ... and being tailed by spies

The appearance of a comet is a bad omen, a sign of terrible things to come.

Our first real job with the European Space Agency was not with the Mars Express mission, our ultimate goal, but with several proposed research exercises to simulate space probes landing on comets to collect samples.

Superstition aside, the pristine conditions of comets, which have preserved many of the earliest chemical features of the solar system, make them ideal objects of study for those interested in its origin.

So, in 1997, while everyone in Hong Kong was anxiously preparing for the handover, my Polytechnic University colleagues and I were busy designing and making 'microend-effectors' (MEE). These were small movable devices that combined the functions of forceps and drills, and were attached to the end of a robotic arm to collect extraterrestrial soil and rock samples.

Pierre Coste, one of the agency's foremost experts on micro-sampling, gave us only a few months to come with the prototypes for testing at DLR, the German space agency and an ESA contractor.

One of my Polytechnic colleagues joked: 'Sampling a comet is like scratching the face of the devil - it will bring us bad luck.' But I said this would be different because for the first time in history, humanity was sending spacecraft to comets, instead of misfortune-bearing comets appearing on Earth. This ought to nullify the bad fung shui.

The Hong Kong team devised the 'passive self-adaptive gripping' concept. This mechanical principle, which guided all our designs, meant our device would automatically adjust to accommodate the shape of an object to hold its maximum surface with minimum force. After months of hard work, our team had our secret weapons, and was ready to take them for testing in Germany.

I travelled alone to the DLR near Cologne which operated one of Europe's largest simulation centres for space missions.

We were competing with the likes of Italian Edoardo Re, whose team was already hard at work designing drills for the comet-chasing spacecraft Rosetta. The German and the Russian teams all enjoyed superior resources, experience and expertise. However, they were focusing on the big picture, on key computer software and mission systems. Hong Kong had the luxury of focusing on designing and producing the MEE. I knew we had a breakthrough design in our MEE. To appreciate the precision workmanship, one has to use a high-power magnifying glass because all the key design features were hidden to within 20mm.

Hermann Kochan, a giant of a man who was in charge of testing and simulation at DLR, studied our work and recommended it to Wing Ip, a planetary scientist originally from Hong Kong who was then based at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. He is also one of the architects of the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft - an ongoing joint Nasa and ESA mission - to Saturn and Titan, its largest moon.

During all my years working on various space projects, Dr Ip would be the only space scientist I was able to speak Cantonese with. He gave me a great piece of advice: an ESA mission to Mars, called Mars Express, was being planned. Our tools might be considered.

The Americans were also planning a Mars mission, but Dr Ip told me the Americans would never accept us, but he didn't give a reason. 'Nasa would never give you a seat to Mars,' he said. And he was right: all my contacts with Nasa scientists and bureaucrats over these years had proved fruitless.

Dr Ip recommended our work to his boss, Helmut Rosenbauer, a powerful figure in the German space industry who was in charge of the ongoing Rosetta mission.

After I gave a lecture at the Max Planck Institute, he took me to the assembly laboratory to inspect the Rosetta, soon to be ready for launch.

The Hong Kong team was beginning to mingle with the elite in international space circles, talking the same 'space' language. We were too late for the Rosetta comet-chasing mission, but we were setting our sight on Mars.

Next week: Colin Pillinger and the mission to Mars