A tool designed by a Hong Kong dentist will travel to the deep, dark craters of the moon with the European Space Agency to search for water.
The design for the sampling device by Dr Ng Tze-chuen was accepted by Kayser-Threde, a German aerospace company contracted by the ESA to create the planetary sampling tools to be attached to a rover that will explore the moon's surface. The discovery of water may help make a base on the moon more viable in the near future.
'TC's designs are unconventional, low-mass, lightweight designs, and for that reason are very attractive,' said project manager Professor Lutz Richter. 'Anything that is lighter is always better, because it means less fuel will be used to get the objects into space. '
Ng said: 'I've spent three decades making tools to find life on Mars - or elsewhere in the universe.'
The 59-year-old was dressed in a blazer adorned with the insignia of the ill-fated Beagle 2 mission to Mars a decade ago. Ng designed a drill and corer for the mission, but the tools were never able to be used after all signals from the Mars lander were lost. But the designs held up during testing on earth, and Ng's experience and determination to be part of space exploration paid off in future adventures with the Russian, European and Chinese space programmes.
'Because he doesn't think like us, sometimes he finds solutions much more quickly than we do,' Richter said. 'That helps cut down on time and cost.'
It also helps that the dentist does not ask for payment for his designs and funds his own research.
Ng's design will scoop up the soil samples without needing power to operate. 'You push the top against the soil and it will open up; when you pull it away, it closes up without using any energy,' Ng said.
This, Ng and Richter say, is important in an environment like space, where everything for the mission needs to be launched from earth.
This is also the reason finding water on the moon is important for those who believe that man will once again be exploring earth's satellite within the next two decades. Splitting water into its base elements oxygen and hydrogen could provide air for astronauts and fuel for rockets.
While most of the moon's southern side is perpetually bathed in sunlight, the European mission is aimed at craters that have never seen the light of day, which scientists theorise may contain icy soil.
Ng's design will also protect elements in the soil from being vaporised by the heat and glare of the sun, and help deliver them safely to the waiting lander to be analysed.
'The prototype will be produced at the end of this year, and the design further enhanced and tested to see if it can withstand the stresses of space flight: the shaking and the temperature conditions,' Richter said.
When the tool is pressed against the ground it opens. And when that force is removed it closes, scooping up the excavated soil and protecting any ice from the sun's harsh rays.