How far can a dentist's drill go?
8 April 2003When ESA's Mars Express reaches the Red Planet in December 2003, there will be a drill on board its Beagle 2 lander. This drill will dig into the surface to take samples of the Martian rocks. Who would imagine that the creativity of an enthusiastic dentist is behind a 'cosmic' drill?
A few years ago, when scientists were busy with Mars Express and its lander, engineers needed a precision rock corer and grinder for Beagle 2. They also required a system to grip the rock powder firmly to drop it into an analyser. About the same time, a Chinese dentist called Dr. Ng visited ESTEC, ESA's establishment in the Netherlands, looking for space applications for his high-tech inventions.
"Dr. Ng and his team came to ESTEC armed with a tremendous enthusiasm and many impressive prototype instruments," says Agustin Chicarro, Mars Express Project Scientist. "They asked for advice on how they could get involved in a Mars mission."
Dr Ng and his colleagues had found the right people at the right moment: engineers were designing Beagle 2, the lander for Mars Express. The high-precision drill proposed by Dr Ng called a Micro End Effector, originally weighed 900 grams. The Beagle 2 engineers adapted it and made it lighter to fit on the spacecraft. They reduced the weight to less than 400 grams and scaled down the energy consumption to 2 Watts (less than the smallest light bulb).
Once on Mars, the head of the rock drill will roll over a small area of the selected rock. The drill will then begin to penetrate up to one centimetre into the rock and collect an uncontaminated rock sample. A microlab located on Beagle's 'paw' will then examine it. "If we are lucky, this could be the first human-made tool to encounter an alien form of life," says an enthusiastic Dr Ng.
"Perhaps a jeweller could have designed a useful tool like that too," observes Chicarro. "All we need for ESA planetary exploration missions are small, light instruments, just like the ones the Hong Kong team provided."