A rock sampling tool developed by Hong Kong engineers was accepted by the European Space Agency (ESA) and carried in one of the ESA's spacecraft which was launched Tuesday morning from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on a mission to Mars.
If the so-called Mars Expression Mission operates smoothly and the spacecraft's Lander "Beagle 2" lands successfully on Mars in late December 2003, the space tool, known as the Mars Rock Corer, will become the first Chinese made instrument to touch the soil of a planet outside the Earth.
As a major task of the Mars Express Mission is to search for signs of life in the rocks of the planet, it could therefore also become the first instrument to encounter life on a planet outside the Earth.
The tool is the joint efforts of a 12-member team led by five principal investigators, who are Ng Tze-chuen, a dentist and a university fellow of Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), Yung Kai-leung, Chris Wong Ho-ching and Yu Chun-ho of PolyU; and Chan Chiu-cheung, an independent engineer.
It was produced by skilled engineering staff using state-of-the-art facilities at the PolyU Industrial Center.
Nobel Laureate in Physics Yang Chen-ning is the Scientific Advisor of the project.
The development of the Mars Rock Corer and its predecessor the Space Holinser Forceps has come a long way.
The Holinser Forceps, originated from a pair of dental forceps, were developed by PolyU engineers from a concept initiated by Dr Ng.
The idea was developed into the Space Forceps System which consists of 70 inter-connectable components for used by astronauts in Space.
In 1995, four sets of Holinser Forceps were ordered by the Russian Space Agency for use by astronauts in precision soldering.
Following their initial success, the team further ventured into interplanetary sampling and developed the multi-functional Mars Rock Corer which can grind, drill, core and grip rock samples.
Ng said the weight of the equipment had originally been about 900 grams, but they had succeeded in reducing it substantially.
With energy consumption as low as two watts and weighs only 370 grams, the tool is much lighter and energy-efficient than other similar instruments.
Ng said, "The device has cleverly integrated characteristics of Chinese chopsticks into the design for effective retrieval of samples from inside of rocks."
The team had won a lot of awards on the invention, including "The Most Innovative Award" in the "Election of 10 Engineering Wonders in Hong Kong" organized by the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers in 1999, a gold medal in the "Brussels Eureka" which was also known as the "50th World Exhibition of Innovation, Research and New Technologies" in 2001.
(Xinhua News Agency June 4, 2003)