SCIENTISTS using technology developed in DERA Malvern have achieved a world first in aircraft detection from space.

An infra-red telescope on a satellite 400km above the Earth tracked an aircraft just by the friction heat of its fuselage.

The breakthrough could mean the development of detectors which can spot missiles in flight and even the elusive Stealth aircraft.

Previous infra-red sensors could only see aircraft in flight if they were flying on afterburners.

The telescope and its associated technology was conceived by scientists in Malvern and built by colleagues in DERA's space division at Farnborough, with the support of British industry.

It was put into space in June on the US Pegasus satellite, although there are plans to send up British satellites in the future.

The successful trial involved spotting a Boeing 747 airliner as it flew over North Kent. The sighting was confirmed by consulting air traffic control radar records.

An official DERA statement said: "Detection of an aircraft using only the heat created by friction of the aircraft flying through the air represents a world first.

"This innovative new technology may have the potential to detect aircraft in flight which are not detectable by other means.

"The concept has evolved from a long history of collaboration between the MoD and the US Department of Defense."

"We are very excited, I have a team of six people here, launching was a very big event for us," said Chris Dorn, operations manager for the Medium Wave Infra-Red project, "If you put a lot of effort into things, I have personally worked on it for five years, if you put in a lot of time, you think if it goes bang then it's back to the drawing board."

As well as the infra-red sensor itself, cutting edge technology includes the carbon fibre body and electrical cooling system.