“What’s needed is interdisciplinary collaboration between physicists and geoscientists.”

An interview with Prof. Dr. Mario Trieloff, director of the Steinbeis Transfer Center for AstroGeomaterials

Prof. Dr. Mario Trieloff explains why geoscience is so important for exploration of the universe. In the interview, he also discusses questions surrounding the origins of the solar system, the Earth, and life itself, pondering on the future devel-opment of space exploration and the challenges this will pose for his Steinbeis Enterprise.

Professor Trieloff, space travel often brings eye-opening missions to mind, things like the recent New Horizons discoveries and those amazing images from space. You work in an area that, for any layperson, is probably a completely unknown in space – extraterrestrial materials and geomaterials. What topics and areas does this involve?

People often think that investigating far-flung heavenly bodies belongs to physics. Classic astronomical obser-vation uses telescopes to examine electromagnetic radiation coming from extraterrestrial bodies, typically from huge distances. The strategy at the core of space missions is different. They involve transporting a relatively small load of scientific instruments to a target object somewhere in the solar system to study it at close quarters. This mainly involves engineers – to deal with flight capability and robotics – and physicists and chemists – to carry out experiments.

But when it’s a planet with a solid surface, like Mars or the Earth’s moon, or a small planetary body like an asteroid or comet, it’s all about investigating rocks and minerals. This is where the right geoscientific expertise is needed, to interpret the re-sults, and before that, to make the right instruments, to tackle the sorts of issues that are relevant to geoscience, or to test laboratory-type scientific instruments on suitable rocks and minerals – by which I mean extraterrestrial materials or geomaterials.

What happens specifically with the insights gained from researching extraterrestrial geomateri-als? And what services does your Steinbeis Transfer Center for AstroGeomaterials offer in this area?

To judge the kinds of rocks and materials we can – theoretically – expect to find on asteroids, comets, Mars or the Moon, and to analyze these from a space probe, we’ve already gained some astonishingly good information by analyzing meteorites. Meteorites are typically a couple of centimeters or several meters in diameter – big chunks of rock that fell to earth at an extremely high velocity at around 10km per second. The collection of meteorites on Earth keeps growing; we currently have around 50,000 samples, most of which come from asteroids, and there are also minute dust particles from comets and about 100 meteorites from the Moon, plus a similar number from planet Mars. This allows us to “probe” many more planetary bodies then we would actually get from mission sample returns like the Apollo missions, Stardust or Hayabusa.

One obvious idea is to simply use samples from these meteorites as experimental material or calibration materials for experiments. But because these are extremely complex rocks or multi-mineral materials, it’s better initially to carry out tests with the individual minerals that make up the rocks. Often the problem with this is that to separate off the minerals properly, you need large volumes of rocks or, for example, you need large volumes of materials to calibrate space ex-periments. But extraterrestrial samples are extremely rare and sometimes they’re also extremely expensive; often curators won’t even make them available for such purposes, so you have to fall back on analogous terrestrial materials, which are available in sufficient quantities. The Steinbeis Transfer Center for AstroGeomaterials provides specific advice on selecting such rocks to ensure that the analogous material that is taken is suitable for gauging certain types of space experiments.

Your research at the University of Heidelberg also involves questions regarding the origins of the solar system. What secrets have emerged from interstellar dust about primeval materials and the solar system? What impact do you believe such insights could have on further developments in space travel?

With lots of space missions, like the current Rosetta project, the aim is to gain a better understanding of the origins of our solar system, the Earth, and life itself. We also look into these issues by studying meteorites. We now know that all bodies in our solar system originated from an interstellar cloud of gas and dust 4.6 billion years ago. There was a primeval nebular formation, a protoplanetary disk around our sun, which was just developing, with phases of heat lasting just a short time resulting in the first solid objects – only millimeters or centimeters in size. After a period lasting several million years, there were swarms of small planets whose descendants are today’s asteroids. It then took another several tens of millions of years for the forerunners of today’s terrestrial planets to take shape. We still find the remnants of these first solid objects in meteorites in our solar system, and we even find rare grains of stardust, micrometers in size, that developed in the wind of all stars even before our solar system existed. Without meteorites, we wouldn’t know the exact age of the Earth and we wouldn’t have so much detail of its constituent materials. Meteorites contain amazingly complex prebiotic materials such as amino acids, and these could have played an important role in the origins of life on Earth.

The meteorites that come down to earth are only meters in size. Much more rare, but also much more dangerous, are the ones that measure kilometers in diameter, like the ones that came down in the past and had such a significant effect on the geosphere and biosphere. They were linked to mass mortality between the Cretaceous and Paleogene periods – and the end of the di-nosaurs – after a meteorite came down in Mexico 66 million years ago. Future space mission concepts are also looking at different ways to divert menacing asteroids early enough, or different ways to use asteroids to build a space industry.

Can you estimate from today’s standpoint what challenges future space travel developments will pose for your Steinbeis Enterprise and how this might affect your portfolio of services?

During the pioneering time, the priority was flight capabilities. That won’t be the case anymore, just getting a probe properly underway and maneuvering it away from Earth to the target object to land it on the surface. Such missions are only justifiable if more scientific insights are gained than from previous missions. What’s needed in this respect is more professional and interdisciplinary collaboration between physicists and geoscientists. This will increasingly become the case if the missions are about sample returns – for example when it comes to selecting the right landing area. If the Earth were an unknown planet and we were explor-ing it, the geoscientists would tell you how incredibly important it is to collect the first samples from specific places in order to find out something about the planet.


Prof. Dr. Mario Trieloff is director of the Steinbeis Transfer Center for AstroGeomaterials at the University of Heidelberg. His Steinbeis Enterprises offers clients astromineralogical and geoscientific expertise needed to participate in the planning and conducting of space experiments, as well as advice on the acquisition and analysis of extraterrestrial geomaterials. 

Prof. Dr. Mario Trieloff
Steinbeis Transfer Center AstroGeomaterials (Heidelberg)

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