March 28, 2007 / 9:34 AM / 12 years ago

Hong Kong dentist designs tools for space

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong dentist Ng Tze-chuen’s work is literally out of this world.

Dentist Ng Tze-chuen poses at the balcony of his home in Hong Kong March 26, 2007. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

The 54-year-old, who has been designing his own dental tools for 20 years, is part of a team developing an ultra-small rock grinder that Russia will use on an unmanned space mission in 2009 to explore one of the two moons of Mars.

“I want to use my skills and test them in the most extreme of environments, in outer space, in the deep sea,” said Ng, whose creations have made it into space in 1995 and 2003.

The size of a cigarette box, the light weight device being developed at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University can grind rocks and pebbles as hard as volcanic rock into fine particles. “The purpose is to prepare soil samples for analysis,” Ng said.

Ng began designing forceps in 1989, when he got frustrated at standard tools that did not grip properly, causing dental fillings to fall onto his surgery room carpet.

He has since designed more than 70 pairs.

“I needed forceps with persistent gripping, so I designed them. Dentists are the best at gripping, so the spinoff from this skill is tremendous,” said Ng, whose office is filled with posters of space exploration programs.

“Then I thought my forceps were too good for dentists, they should instead be used in outer space by astronauts.”

Called the Soil Preparation System (SOPSYS), the device Ng and his team have designed has three motors and is made almost entirely of titanium. The grinder is made of tungsten carbide.

“Our design is final and it’s ready for first prototype testing. In summer, rocket scientists from Russia will be here to test it. There should be six more prototypes to go,” said Ng.

Chinese President Hu Jintao, who is visiting Russia, signed deals with Moscow on Monday, one of which is to cooperate in joint exploration of Mars and its moon, Phobos.

Phobos is 9,380 km from Mars. Mars is 56 million km (35 million miles) from earth, at the closest point in its orbit. The Hong Kong-made SOPSYS is one of three Chinese devices that will be used on the unmanned spacecraft.

Russian cosmonauts used four pairs of Ng’s forceps in 1995 to solder wires onboard the Mir space station, which orbited Earth for 15 years (1986-2001).

His “rock corer” was onboard the unmanned British Beagle 2 in 2003, which scientists believe crashed on the surface of Mars.

A self-confessed daydreamer, Ng wants no money from space agencies for his designs.

“It is an honor just for my designs to go to space. Maybe all we’ll ask in return is a gram of soil,” he said.

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