The sorry tale of Star Tiger

The Star Tiger project was launched in June with high hopes, a blaze of publicity and the endorsement of science minister Lord Sainsbury. So what happened?

The Star Tiger project was launched in June with high hopes, a blaze of publicity and the endorsement of science minister Lord Sainsbury.

The idea was exciting: bring together a team of scientists from across Europe, allow them to concentrate on a single task, remove distractions such as having to do administration, or go through complex processes to buy equipment, and see if they can compress two years’ work into four months.

The objective was to develop a real-time terahertz imager for the European Space Agency, with applications in earth imaging, astronomy and medicine. But if the project was successful the method could have wide applications, it was said.Six months on, how has the project fared? There seems to be some disagreement. The team’s leader admits to missing the key objective: to build a prototype capable of producing a multi-spectrum image of a human hand. The head of ESA’s technology programmes loftily claims complete success. But all concerned seem cagey about discussing the project at all. They put this down to spin-offs that can’t be talked about until patents have been filed.

This seems feeble. Star Tiger was an ambitious project, and could be forgiven for failing to reach all its objectives if it has succeeded in the wider aim of demonstrating a powerful new approach to research. So what has been learned? Did the new approach work as planned? What aspects could be built on or apply elsewhere? What improvements and modifications are needed?

You can’t start a programme with a public fanfare and then clam up about the results without fanning suspicions that something went embarrassingly wrong. ESA has created an obligation for itself to give a full account of the project’s successes and failures.