Star Tiger to unveil submillimetre wave secrets

The Star Tiger team today begins a four-month pioneering research and development project at Rutherford Appleton Laboratories (RAL), which could lead to a real breakthrough for submillimetre wave imaging.

For the first time under the ESA Star Tiger initiative, eleven scientists and specialists from seven different European countries (The United Kingdom, Ireland, Italy, Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Spain) are working together in an innovative way. The idea is to get together a small group of highly motivated researchers, grant them full access to laboratory and production facilities, remove all administrative distractions, and let them work for an intense period of four months.
What is Star Tiger?

Star Tiger stands for `Space Technology Advancements by Resourceful, Targeted and Innovative Groups of Experts and Researchers`, a pioneering activity under the European Space Agency`s Basic Technology Research Programme (TRP) to facilitate innovative, breakthrough research. The main aim is to reduce dramatically the development time for critical space technology programmes.
The goal of this Star Tiger project is to realise the world’s first compact submillimetre wave imager using state-of-the-art micro-electro-mechanical technology. Such an imager is acknowledged to break a number of barriers today limiting scientific research in several fields.

“If we succeed in building such an imager operating at these frequencies, it will represent a true breakthrough for submillimetre wave remote sensing from space,” said Peter de Maagt, ESA`s Project Manager for Star Tiger. “In the field of planetary, cometary and atmospheric sensing, imaging arrays capable of measuring height-resolved spectral features in the submillimetre frequency range will have a major impact on instrumentation for monitoring issues such as climate change and ozone chemistry.”

For space astronomy observation the submillimetre wavelength will open up a virtually unexplored part of the spectrum. This could answer some of the big questions of how galaxies were formed in the early Universe, and how stars form, and have been forming, throughout the history of the Universe.

On Earth such an imager has already been identified to be potentially very useful in medicine for early diagnosis of skin cancer, process control in industrial manufacturing, and non-invasive security systems for airports and other public areas. By observing submillimetre waves it is possible to see through many materials, and obtain the equivalent of an X-ray image without the use of X-rays.

“The unique properties of submillimetre waves mean that there undoubtedly will be many other new applications. We just do not know how many yet,” continued De Maagt.

Eleven innovative brains

ESA and RAL have put together a team of professionals for the Star Tiger project. Eleven applicants were selected last April to cover all the necessary fields of expertise.

“We have been very lucky,” explained Dr Chris Mann, the Project Manager at RAL. “We got many applications from very motivated and highly experienced researchers who were willing to put in the necessary time and effort over the summer to make this project a success. The eleven selected team members cover together all the technologies required to develop a compact colour submillimetre wave imager.”

The imager will integrate such innovative technology areas as planar antenna technology, planar detector technology, micro-machining technology, photonic band gap materials and miniaturised back-end electronics.

The key to success is the ready access to state-of-the-art equipment, facilities, computing power and technical support. The Space Science and Technology Department at RAL with top class laboratories, and some of the most highly regarded scientists and engineers, is the ideal setting for the project.

Geoff McBride, Deputy Project Manager at RAL added, “we are happy to carry out this project at RAL and many of my colleagues are ready to provide assistance. The Star Tiger project team will have at their disposal all the resources of our Central Microstructure Facility and Millimetre Wave Technology Group.” A dedicated support team of many engineers and scientists at RAL will assist the Star Tiger team over the four-month project period.

Official inauguration

On Monday 24 June, the Star Tiger project will be officially inaugurated at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) in Oxfordshire near Didcot. Among the invited speakers is Lord Sainsbury, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Science and Innovation in the UK.

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