Reaching for the stars

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 September, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 September, 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 days leading up to Christmas of 2003 were the most exciting of my life. The Mars Express orbiter had arrived weeks before and was circling the planet; it was about to release the landing probe Beagle 2.

For the first time, I was sure that my baby - the sampling tools - would touch the soil of another planet. Whether they would be in one piece was another question.

Our team was so excited about the prospect of Hong Kong-made sampling tools making history on Martian soil.

On Christmas Day, all our team members crowded into the Polytechnic University's industrial centre where our Martian tools were made. The European Space Station was broadcasting Beagle's landing live on the internet.

It was hard to conceal my anxiety while our colleagues were preparing to open champagne.

The Beagle was programmed to beam back as a signal a nice little nine-note composition by British rock group Blur as a sign it had landed safely. It took 20 minutes for electronic signals to travel between Earth and Mars. Instead the ether carried only static.

There was still hope in the following weeks as some of the world's most powerful radio telescopes and two Mars orbiters - one from the American space agency, Nasa - were scanning for signs of the Beagle, but the chances of recovering the space probe grew dimmer with each passing day.

Something went wrong in the entry-descent-landing sequence. Beagle 2 landed on the side of a meteorite crater.

Later, the orbiters took pictures of shades and craters in Isidis Planitia, a low plain inside a very old giant crater on Mars, where Beagle 2 crash-landed north of the equator on the eastern side of the planet. Analysts believe they were the probe's debris and impact created from the crash.

This was in contrast to Nasa's successful landing of the Spirit rover on Mars, its fourth since the 1970s. This was followed shortly by another rover, Opportunity.

Overnight, Colin Pillinger, the father of the British-made Beagle 2, turned from a national hero to scapegoat in Britain.

Considering the nature and budgetary constraints of the entire Beagle project, its chances of success were always slim.

The spacecraft's computer program essentially had to complete complex sequences automatically after being detached from Mars Express until its hatch opened on landing. Beagle 2 had to carry an entire exobiology lab under a severely restricted payload.

It had no retrorocket to slow down the landing impact. Mars has an ultra-thin atmosphere. Beagle 2 was detached from its mother ship by an explosive bolt, cutting through the atmosphere at a critical angle - entering the Martian atmosphere at 5km per second - before its onboard computer went autopilot.

A commission of inquiry in Britain claimed the management of Beagle was faulty. Without naming names, at least in the published summery of its findings, everyone knew it was laying at least part of the blame on Professor Pillinger.

Professor Pillinger has rejected suggestions that the Beagle 2 project management was to blame.

The fault, as I saw it, came down to money, or the lack of it, from the start.

In any Mars mission, payload and money are the two critical issues. Beagle 2 could not afford a retrorocket yet it was packed with highly sensitive equipment.

By contrast, Nasa could afford to send engineers around the world to shop for top-of-the-line parts for its retrorocket, dismantle and examine them for the best performance. Their rovers did not have unlimited budgets, but they were many times higher than the money the British raised.

Despite the failure, the British had done a great job in showing the world that it was possible to build a small efficient exobiological laboratory on a shoestring budget and lowest payload.

This will offer valuable lessons for the upcoming Russian mission to the Martian moon Phobos, China's Chang'e project to the Moon, the Europeans' ExoMars project - and perhaps Beagle 3? We are hoping to take part in these missions, with our expertise in designing advanced sampling tools.

Meanwhile, with our hi-tech 'chopsticks' buried on Mars, maybe after a few billion years, some Martians will pick them up and learn to eat the Chinese way!