reaching for the stars

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 August, 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

Was I neglecting my family because of my obsession with Mars, like countless others in centuries past who had been possessed by this strange and wondrous planet? Perhaps I was a Martian in my previous life, and was now trying to return home.

The Lunar New Year holiday is the most important one in the Chinese calendar. Yet in 1999, during the holiday, I found myself in Helsinki, Finland, instead of being with my children as I had every year since they were born.

At a gathering of the Finnish Geological Society, there would be intense discussions about designing and deploying a lander from Mars Express, an upcoming European Space Agency mission to the Red Planet. It seemed far fetched we would ever be allotted a payload aboard the lander. 'Don't bother going - enjoy the holiday with your family,' a Polytechnic University colleague told me.

I knew what he meant, and I didn't have high hopes for the trip. However, if I didn't show my face, our chance would be zero. 'No, we can't afford to miss the chance, no matter how small,' I said.

By then, the ESA had confirmed the go-ahead for Mars Express, with a designated spare capability of 60kg for a rover to explore the planet's terrain and collect surface samples.

I tried to lobby Rudolf Rieder of Mainz University in Germany. He was designing a book-size rover with the help of Russian scientists. He was famous as the man behind the APX spectrometer on board Nasa's hugely successful Pathfinder mission to Mars.

The tool was supposed to identify individual elements of Martian rocks. Unfortunately, the Pathfinder's rovers did not have tools to peel off the surface rind under which the really significant chemical signatures might be buried. So all the chemical data relayed by the spectrometer from the planet were unreliable.

This problem was recognised and rectified by Nasa in its 2003 Athena Mars mission, which carried a heavy-duty grinder to expose rind.

Dr Rieder had strong connections with the Russian Academy of Science as his father-in-law was a prominent figure in the Russian space industry. Despite his experience and reputation, his team was not chosen.

I then turned my attention to the British team, led by the impetuous but brilliant Colin Pillinger of the Open University. The British team would have a representative in Helsinki, and I needed to be there to track him down. The Finland trip turned out to be the most fruitful trip I had made so far in Europe.

In Helsinki, I looked for British representative Mark Sims among the European scientists as they were starting preliminary tools selection for a planetary lander with just a 60kg payload, the lowest in the history of planetary exploration.

With our experience in micro-sampling tools, especially with our 'super-chopstick drill-bits', we thought we had a chance.

I was expecting the British would need some serious convincing to accept a dentist from Hong Kong. Instead, I couldn't find a nicer man in Dr Sims. 'I know you and your work with the sampling tools. Let's see how we could co-operate,' he said.

Dr Sims, the manager for Collin Pillinger's lander project, provided technical specifications about what the Hong Kong team needed to achieve. We would build a rock-coring device under 400gm which could not use more than 2 watts in energy. This was equivalent to only 10 per cent of what was available to a similar Nasa tool.

No space agency had attempted rock coring on another planet under such conditions. 'Yes, it is possible,' I told Dr Sims. I was a yes man in these matters.

Since the British mission was to search for (past) life on Mars, sampling was the soul of the lander's mission because the secret lay hidden inside rocks. I had predicted that the British would not so easily permit an outside team to take up this responsibility unless we could propose a really breakthrough concept with demonstrable prototypes.

Our team worked day and night because we were determined to show Hong Kong had better offers for the British than just sweet and sour pork.

Next week: The world's most expensive beagle and the man who owned it