Adventure in the Desert

Excursion to Chile awakens fascination for astrophysics and astrobiology

Crossing the desert in a pickup truck, camping under the stars in silence and solitude, a solar eclipse on the other side of the world, and a look at the most highly developed optical instrument in the world, the Very Large Telescope, located 2600 meters above sea level in Chile: For six students this adventure became a reality. They were able to participate in a three-week field trip that featured a number of additional highlights. The trip was offered by astrophysicist Dr. Jenny Feige and astrobiologist Dr. Alessandro Airo as part of the interdisciplinary and inter-university module “Astronomy and Astrobiology in the Atacama Desert”.

As for all researchers though, scientific work stood at the forefront of the trip. “The entire module is two semesters long,” explains Jenny Feige. “During a pre-seminar, students are introduced to different topics and then choose two of these for their field investigation and report. Focus is on astrophysical research, in other words observing the sky, and astrobiology, specifically life in extreme conditions.

The Atacama Desert is one of the driest places in the world and is comparable with the geology on Mars. And yet there is life here. Chile also has other ecosystems, whose need for water is met by fog, such as Pan de Azúcar, a Pacific coastal region with low bushes and cacti, which the students and researchers also visited.

Cyanobacteria, micrometeorites, and auxiliary telescopes

“I chose to focus on cyanobacteria, which live under rocks to maintain their low moisture level,” explained Luis Peitzner, one of the participating students. He completed the two-semester MINT pre-study orientation program at Technische Universität Berlin and is now studying Geotechnology.

Friedrich Trepte studies Environmental Science and Technology. His topic was micrometeorites, which he hoped to find on the barren ground of the desert. In the seminar to follow the field trip he will investigate whether the rocks he collected are truly meteorites, which can originate from shattered astroids from the astroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Daniel Maurer studies Aeronautics and Astronautics and is especially interested in technology, in particular the Very Large Telescope with its four main telescopes, each measuring 8.2 meters in mirror diameter, and its many auxiliary telescopes.