Reaching for the stars
As told to Alex Lo
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
After the failure of Beagle 2 [in December 2003], the European Space Agency (ESA) had to return to Mars to prove it had the ability to collect on-site samples before a joint mission with Nasa to bring samples back to Earth in 2018.
Unlike Nasa, the ESA has never successfully landed a space probe on Mars. ESA's ExoMars is expected to be its first rover-led mission to the Red Planet, tentatively scheduled for launch in 2011, although it may be delayed until 2013.
Last year, I was in contact with one of ExoMars' contractors, the British company EADS Astrium, which was willing to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Hong Kong team to provide a rock corer on a robotic arm on the ExoMars rover. It was very satisfying for me to see our device incorporated in a computer design for the lander.
Unfortunately, ESA has insisted that it adopt a single subsoil drill system policy for ExoMars, which would exclude a separate role for our corer. This was a blow to Hong Kong. ESA wants to drill almost two metres into Martian soil. Drilling to this depth through compact soil that is billions of years old is like going through two metres of soft rock.
The agency proposes taking a large-diameter core, then cutting the sample into sections and grinding a specific section into powder for chemical analysis.
As the precision tools designer, I would advise drilling a smaller diameter core because it would be easier to collect samples.
Since Astrium will likely be selected as the primary consortium for building the ExoMars rover, there still is a chance we could be selected when they realise their corer could jam.
We have another advantage. We have talked with Galileo Avionica, an Italian company that helped design the drill for ESA's comet-chasing satellite Rosetta, about incorporating our coring device in its larger drill for ExoMars. Avionica will be responsible for sampling. And, as time goes by, I expect there is a reasonable chance that ESA will accept our rock corer as the second sampling drill because it will account for just five per cent of the sampling system on board.
Because I live for space missions, I want to hedge my team's bet.
We are also in touch with the Russian space agency that is planning a 2009 mission to Phobos, one the two moons circling Mars.
Phobos has no atmosphere. Its gravity is only 1/2000th that of the Earth. A space probe could float on its sand dunes.
Scientists believe that the soil on Phobos, like comets, has been preserved in pristine condition for billions of years. It could yield important insights into the origin of our solar system.
Our Russian connection is Alexander Zakharov, an eminent figure at the Russian Academy of Sciences, who is in charge of the mission's sampling project.
Next year, he and several other colleagues hope to visit us at Polytechnic University to inspect our prototypes.
I have visited Professor Zakharov in Moscow many times. The first time, the Russians wanted to know what made the British accept Hong Kong's tools for Beagle 2. After I gave a presentation about our research, which has gone on for more than a decade, the Russians realised they could use our help. 'Yes, we need your device for our Phobos mission,' they told me.
At a meeting in Moscow a few months ago, the Russians appointed us to work on a sample-grinding mechanism. The specifications were not easy as we are not grinding coffee beans, but pebbles with unknown hardness.
Recently, China and Russia agreed to work together on the Phobos-Grunt mission scheduled in 2009. Our team's sampling work has been recognised as one of three Chinese projects for the Russian Phobos mission.
Certainly this would help us to secure a seat on the mainland's proposed Chang'e moon mission.
When I approached the Chinese Space Agency, I realised they were happy to have us as part of a national team.
They noted my group had crafted 'the first Chinese-made tools to touch the soil of a planet outside Earth'.
I observed that the young Chinese scientists were eager to learn since they had no experience in planetary landing or sampling. It would be my honour to serve my country.