An innovative project known as Star Tiger was officially inaugurated at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) in Oxfordshire this week by Lord Sainsbury, Science and Innovation Minister for the UK.

The Star Tiger concept puts together a highly motivated team with solid scientific background and gives them priority access to top-class laboratories and workshops. They work together intensively for a period of 4 to 6 months without administrative distractions to reach a true breakthrough in a technology field selected.

The goal: a compact submillimetre wave camera using state-of-the-art technology, producing pictures of natural waves in the submillimetre frequency range. Such an imager is considered to break through a number of barriers today limiting scientific research in several fields.

Speaking at the launch of Star Tiger, Science Minister Lord Sainsbury said, “Star Tiger’s success in developing the prototype submillimetre wave camera will be critical for the future of innovative research and development projects in Europe, and I am proud that the UK is playing a major role in this challenging and pioneering enterprise.”

This revolutionary approach to research and development (R&D) is part of the European Space Agency’s recent initiative to strengthen innovative and breakthrough research.

“Technology R&D and in particular innovation are key essentials to reinforce European space business. Today ESA spends about 250 million Euros on its Technology Research Programmes which is about 8% of the total ESA budget. Of this, 20-25 million Euros each year is earmarked for innovation,” said Niels Jensen, ESA’s Head of Technology Programmes Department.

“With Star Tiger we want to dramatically reduce the turnaround time for state-of-the art technology developments. If the Star Tiger concept proves successful the Agency will define more projects to be carried out using this concept at the best centres of excellence in ESA Member States.”

Star Tiger end goal: submillimetre wave imager

The target for this project is to develop and build a compact submillimetre wave imager using state of the art micro-machining technology. The goal by the end of the four months is to have an imager that can produce pictures of natural waves emitted in two frequencies, 250 GHz and 300 GHz. The two frequencies provide a means for contrasting between materials with different transmission and reflection properties, effectively creating two colours.

This will provide a view into currently hidden information embedded in natural submillimetre waves, which are emitted by pretty much everything: people, rocks, sea, trees or stars for example. X-ray images without using X-rays! It will pave the way for new applications ranging from science, earth and environment monitoring to medicine.

In the field of planetary and atmospheric sensing, a submillimetre wave imager with linear arrays capable of simultaneously measuring height-resolved spectral features could have a major impact on issues such as climate change and ozone chemistry.

There are also highly interesting possibilities in non-space fields. In medicine for example, experts predict that submillimetre wave imaging will open up new and better diagnostic techniques.

The Star Tiger team

A team of eleven scientists and specialists from seven different European countries were selected for the project. “We have been very lucky,” said Dr Chris Mann, Project Manager at RAL. “We got many applications from very motivated and highly experienced researchers.”

“Together the team covers all the technologies required to develop a compact colour submillimetre wave imager,” explained Peter de Maagt, Project Manager at ESA.

James O’Neill, Star Tiger team member, added “I was very excited to find out about the Star Tiger project as it is obvious that this would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience to push technology to its limits in an incredible team working environment at an amazing research facility.”

ESA and RAL – long history of cooperation

ESA and RAL have a long tradition of working together and the expertise of RAL is recognised in the entire space community.

“When the project was described to me I was immediately taken with the idea of a multi-disciplinary team from Europe working together with high-tech support on a particular challenge. It was easy to convince others at ESA and the Industrial Policy Committee that this project was worth supporting and that RAL was the right setting for the first Star Tiger development”, said Niels Jensen.

Rutherford Appleton Laboratory is one of the foremost research laboratories in the field of submillimetre-wave technology as well having substantial expertise in micro-nano technologies. It represents a unique combination of expertise and development and laboratory facilities for design, testing and production of devices specific relevant to this first Star Tiger project.

“We are delighted to host this exciting project and many of our scientists and engineers will be providing support to the Star Tiger team during their stay. With this team and the backing of my department, this project just has to succeed!” said Professor Richard Holdaway, Director of Space Science and Technology Department at RAL.

Lord Sainsbury emphasised the importance of the Star Tiger project is not limited to the space sector but “the technology it will develop is strategically important for many other industries, some of which are far removed from the original ‘space driven’ requirements.” He added, “it is this linking together and transferring of technology that utilises the full extent and value of scientific research and will keep Europe at the cutting edge of technology development.”

“Good luck to the Star Tiger team”