Reaching for the stars

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 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

Throughout the spring and summer of 2003, people in Hong Kong were preoccupied with the deadly Sars outbreak. As a dentist, I was also concerned about my patients as well as my own health.

But mostly our Polytechnic University team was upset about the outbreak because it disrupted our plan to travel to Baikonur, in Kazakhstan, to witness the launch of Mars Express, in early June.

TVB had expressed interest in following us to the launch and filming it live.

The Mars orbiter carrying Beagle 2 inside would be launched into space by a Russian Soyuz Fregat rocket on a six-month journey to Mars before arriving on Christmas Day.

I would have dearly loved to see this historic launch, having worked so hard on this project of a lifetime. But I didn't want to be put in quarantine or any prolonged detention - a very real possibility at the launch site. We had to decline the invitation.

By the time Mars Express was ready to launch, Beagle 2 had been clammed shut for months. All the sampling tools, including our drill bits, had been completely sterilised to avoid cross-contamination. No one wanted to be in an embarrassing situation where he announced the discovery of a Martian organism, only to find out later it was from Mother Earth.

The Beagle was transported by truck to Toulouse, France. The entire spacecraft was then assembled with the mothership Mars Express and transported to Baikonur by plane in April for launch.

We monitored the progress through live webcam. I had a feeling of great satisfaction when I viewed the front of the rocket holding the Beagle with my baby inside. 'I will pick up a few Martians with our super-chopsticks,' I thought.

I was surprised that refuelling the rocket took one week as my car took only few minutes.

Earlier in the year I went to Milton Keynes, England, to attend a Beagle 2 conference and was surprised to see project scientists still assembling the Beagle lander around the clock in two shifts.

We were the only Asian faces at the conference, Beagle 2 being a predominantly British project.

I was amazed to see the whole interior of Beagle 2 coated in a thin gold plating to absorb solar energy.

The Hong Kong-made rock-corer could clearly been seen. Our team was very proud because we were involved directly or indirectly with all the sampling tools aboard.

When the lid was sealed, I breathed a sign of relief. Every member of our team could tell friends and families they had done something extraordinary.

This meant my baby was really going to another planet, and was perhaps the first Chinese-made tool to touch the soil of a planet outside Earth. The Hong Kong drills were a slow coring device. They took five minutes of trembling before settling down for coring action without anchorage against the targeted rock. But we thought this was an advantage over the latest Nasa ultrasonic drill as it could hardly consolidate powdered samples because of its high vibrations.

As we counted the days to launch on June 2, 2003, we in Hong Kong had nothing to do, having already done our small part in a historic mission to find life on another planet. I felt depressed - perhaps suffering from withdrawal symptoms. After all these years of hard work, bullying my partners to meet schedules and convincing space agencies to take a chance on us, suddenly everything fell into place and there was nothing to do.

Strange to say, the Martian sampling mission was related to my dental work. The precision instruments that I had designed, capable of consolidating an exact volume of powered extraterrestrial samples, could only have come out of dentistry, micro-surgery or clockwork - at the size required by the space agency.

I was satisfied by the fact that Hong Kong-made tools were selected for the mission. My colleagues and I realised that the mission success rate to another planet was less than 33 per cent. With the Russians, after about 20 attempts to Mars since the 1960s, not a single mission had succeeded.

Mars Express and Beagle 2 was Europe's first, so I was realistic about its chances of success. The Mars Express orbiter turned out phenomenally successful, beaming back important data about Mars to this day. Alas, Beagle 2 suffered a different fate.