Why a space scientist docked with the Russians

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 July, 2007, 12:00am

Russia, according to the world media, is returning to its authoritarian roots and turning its back on the liberal west, especially the United States. But for Ng Tze-chuen, who has been working with the Russians on space missions for over a decade, their space research community is far more open and easier to deal with than Nasa.

To Dr Ng, a private dentist and designer of planetary sampling tools, the world's premier space agency is bureaucratic, insular and arrogant. Before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, he had managed to maintain some contacts with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. After that, he found himself essentially cut off. To date, he has never worked on a single Nasa project.

Contrast that with his contacts with the European and Russian space agencies. He and his colleagues at the Polytechnic University designed and made experimental tools for cosmonauts aboard the now-destroyed Mir space station.

He was partners with the British team in charge of the ill-fated Beagle 2 lander, now lost on Mars, and has hobnobbed with leading scientists from the European Space Agency. He has been invited to give talks at research facilities in Moscow, Milton Keynes in England, and Toulouse, France.

Last month, he returned from a trip to the Russian capital where he was invited to take part in a Russian mission to Venus, scheduled for 2017.

His lack of success with the Americans was something he had been warned about a long time ago by Nobel Prize laureate in physics Yang Chen-ning, a former adviser to Dr Ng's joint sampling design projects with Polytechnic University engineers.

A leading physicist of his generation who did all of his most important nuclear physics research in the US, Professor Yang said that at times it was often difficult for a scientist from the mainland or even Hong Kong to work on sensitive projects in America. But suspicion about Chinese scientists, especially with the mainland's recent successes in missile technology and space missions, is especially great in post-9/11 America.

'Professor Yang has great insights at the interaction of politics and science and space science is more political than most other sciences,' Dr Ng said.

Another prominent researcher, Wing Ip, a planetary scientist originally from Hong Kong whom Dr Ng met at the Max Planck Institute in Germany while designing sampling tools for Beagle 2 in the early 2000s, offered a similar warning and advised him to stay with the European Space Agency. Dr Ip 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. Disillusioned with the Americans, Dr Ng said he now focused exclusively on working with the Russians - and the Chinese.

'In the past, I had avoided working with mainland institutions to avoid attracting suspicion from the Americans but I now see that that's the wrong way of going about it - you should go where the work is,' he said.

In March, during a state visit to Moscow, President Hu Jintao signed bilateral trade and business deals worth US$4 billion with his Russian counterpart. A formal agreement between the China National Space Administration and the Russian Space Agency for the forthcoming Phobos-Grunt project was among the deals.

Paradoxically, Dr Ng and his Polytechnic University colleagues have been working on the Russian side of the project. A Russian spacecraft is scheduled for liftoff in 2009.

'It's predominantly a Russian project,' he said. The dentist and the university's industrial and systems engineering professor Yung Kai-leung and his doctorate student and robotics specialist Peter Weiss from Germany, will develop a system to grind and filter soil and pebbles on the surface of Phobos, the larger and innermost of Mars' two moons. Last month's visit to Moscow was to finalise details about the sampling system with Mikhail Gerasimov, a Russian Academy of Science researcher and head of contact instrumentation on both the Phobos and Venus missions.

The Phobos mission was aimed at returning soil samples from the Martian moon to the Earth, said Dr Gerasimov in an e-mail interview.

'Another important task of the mission is to perform various scientific measurements [on site],' he said. 'This includes chemical analysis of the soil in situ in case the return of soil to the Earth failed. Analysis of soil in situ is important to avoid contamination, which is inevitable on Earth.

'One of the most high ranking experiments on Phobos is the measurement of volatile components [such as water, carbon, nitrogen, noble gases and organic compounds] of the Phobos material. This information is very important to understand the origin of Martian moons and evolution of Mars.'

The Hong Kong group will have to develop a micro-planetary grinder of ultra-low payload - about 230 grams - to retrieve samples. It will also modify the device for the Venus missions, which Dr Ng said was even more challenging.

The Venus lander will have about 30 to 45 minutes to land and work on the planet's surface before being destroyed because the temperature heats up to 450 degrees Celsius and is under tremendous atmospheric pressure.

'Basically, we have minutes to retrieve surface samples, put them inside, do laser and chemical scans and beam the data back to Earth before everything is destroyed,' Dr Ng said.

Meanwhile, Dr Ng and Professor Yung, who have worked together for almost two decades starting with forceps they developed for Russian cosmonauts in the mid-1990s, have come full circle by working for the motherland.

Chang'e, named after the moon goddess, is China's next showcase space project. A satellite Chang'e 1, the country's first lunar probe, is scheduled to launch later this year to survey the moon's terrain and its geophysical composition.

But a rover is expected to be sent by the end of this decade to land on the moon. The pair has been in contact with their counterparts to lobby for their sampling tools for the Moon mission. A decision is expected to be announced in November.

'China is still new to space exploration. We think our past experience can contribute to the mainland efforts,' Dr Ng said.