The University of Southampton

Physics and Astronomy team achieves a prestigious victory and secures space flight for experiments

Published: 12 June 2023

In a resounding achievement for Southampton, Professor Hendrik Ulbricht and his team have emerged victorious in the prestigious ESA Payload Masters competition. The competition, organised by the European Space Agency (ESA) as part of its commitment to driving innovation and development in the European space industry, saw Southampton's groundbreaking experiment on levitated optomechanics take center stage.

The ESA Payload Masters initiative aims to identify and promote cutting-edge in-orbit experiments and novel technologies for payloads. Southampton's winning entry into this program represents a significant milestone in the field of space exploration. By demonstrating the feasibility of levitated optomechanics for space applications, the team opens up a whole new world of possibilities for the space industry and scientific research alike.

The experiment conducted by Professor Ulbricht and his team involves loading silica nanoparticles into an optical trap during the flight. Through meticulous feedback-based manipulation, they stabilise the particles' motion, introducing a breakthrough technique that can revolutionise space-based applications. The Southampton team's achievement will be featured in an upcoming mission called "Mission Possible" on Nyx, a modular and reusable orbital vehicle developed, manufactured, and operated by The Exploration Company.

Professor Hendrik Ulbricht said:

"This launch with The Exploration Company is an amazing opportunity for us to demonstrate our quantum technology in space. I am thrilled that we have won this one. It usually takes a decade or so to reach readiness for space and to get an opportunity to fly new technology, but with ?Mission Possible? we have the unique chance and indeed face the immense challenge to move much fast. I like that challenge, as it makes us to work more focused. I hope we will be able to demonstrate that our Levitated Optomechanics Sensors (LOMS) are exceptional accelerometers & gravimeters for satellite geodesy and will be very useful to enhance capabilities and resilience in Earth Observation (EO) for monitoring climate change and weather forecast using even small satellite platforms."

Nyx, known for its ability to be refueled in orbit, offers a versatile platform for various missions. The "Mission Possible" flight, which marks a significant milestone for Nyx's development, will carry a total of 300 kg of customer payloads, including Southampton's levitated optomechanics experiment. During the flight, the experiment will showcase the remarkable potential of performing microgravity experiments and in-orbit technology demonstrations, providing invaluable insights for future space endeavors.

The recognition received through the ESA Payload Masters competition amplifies Southampton's prominence in the space research community. Professor Ulbricht's team has not only secured a remarkable win but also positioned themselves at the forefront of cutting-edge research in space exploration. Their success underscores the University's dedication to pushing boundaries and driving innovation in the field of space science.

The official award ceremony, set to take place in Paris on June 20th, will honour Southampton's exceptional achievement in the ESA Payload Masters competition. This recognition not only showcases the exceptional talent and expertise within the Southampton team but also highlights the University's commitment to advancing space research and technology.

As Southampton's triumph in the ESA Payload Masters competition demonstrates, the European space industry continues to foster groundbreaking advancements and facilitate cross-disciplinary collaboration. The ESA's commitment to innovation and the promotion of pioneering experiments propels the European space sector to the forefront of global space exploration and technology development.

Professor Ulbricht concluded:

"Well, just as an extra bonus we may solve one of the hardest puzzles in fundamental physics, namely on how to interface general relativity and quantum theory. That may sound like science fiction, but we have a real chance as space provides a unique environment for macroscopic quantum systems and they can exist for much longer than on earth. With "Mission Possible" we are the first to gain access to this special environment and to attempt performing nanoparticle matterwave interferometry in space"

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