The three doctoral researchers Martina Baggio, Ariane Exle, and Karin Schlottke from the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Stuttgart have won the Amelia Earhart Fellowship Award, which is valued at USD 10,000 each. The prize is awarded by Zonta International. Zonta honors young female scientists who, like Amelia Earhart, made pioneering achievements in aerospace engineering.
Ms. Exle, what is the topic of your doctoral thesis and how is your research applied?
Ariane Exle (AE): The project I work and research in is called DESTINY+ Dust Analyzer. It’s a scientific instrument for the analysis of cosmic dust, which we are developing here at the Institute of Space Systems at the University of Stuttgart. So the future application is already set: Our Dust Analyzer is going to fly into space on board the Japanese space probe DESTINY+. The destination is the asteroid Phaethon, whose particle environment we are going to investigate. Of course, that will be the highlight of the mission. But even during the four-year travel period, the Dust Analyzer will be able to study various dust populations, such as interstellar dust from our galaxy, the Milky Way, both in Earth orbit and during the interplanetary transfer flight, and provide important scientific insights.
As an engineer, I work on the application side of research in this project, more precisely in the field of space mechanisms. This means that I design, build, and test all subsystems of the instrument, which will later provide movement in space. The most important of these mechanisms is the 2-axis pointing mechanism. This allows the viewing direction of the DESTINY+ Dust Analyzer to be adjusted independently of the spacecraft’s orientation - which is indispensable for reaching all observation targets and thus for scientific operation. Now of course it’s one thing to develop such mechanisms for operation on the ground. For operation in space, there are many additional challenges: limited mass, vacuum, ionizing radiation, extreme temperatures, high loads and vibrations during rocket launch, and, last but not least, the lack of maintenance.
An important part of my work is therefore not only the design, but, above all, the selection and testing of suitable materials and material combinations, the exploitation of the latest lightweight construction possibilities, such as metallic additive manufacturing, and the intensive analysis and testing of the mechanisms in order to guarantee reliable operation in space.
What benefit does your research have for mankind?
AE: One of the great questions for mankind, which even small children like to ask again and again, is “Where do we come from?” or “How did life on earth come to be?”. This is researched in many scientific disciplines, be it biology, archeology, and many more. With our instrument we are, so to speak, starting at the very beginning of evolutionary history: Are there organic substances, such as hydrocarbons, the so-called ‘building blocks of life’, also in space? Where do we find them and through which mechanisms do they spread and can thus reach the earth, for example?
Our predecessor instrument, the Cosmic Dust Analyzer on board NASA’s Cassini-Huygens mission, for example, was able to detect water molecules while flying through geysers on Saturn’s moon Enceladus - a major discovery. Scientists assume that there is liquid water under a layer of ice. One of the important conditions for the origin of life.
With the DESTINY+ mission, we now investigate the dust environment of the asteroid Phaethon. Asteroids and comets, according to the theory, could bring organic material to other heavenly bodies through impacts, where then, under suitable conditions, life can develop. So now it’s necessary to prove that organic material can actually be found on them. This is one of the major scientific objectives of the mission. In this case, the asteroid Phaethon plays a special role for the Earth. It’s the presumed original body of the well-known Geminid meteor shower in mid-December, leaving behind particles on its trajectory, which penetrate into the Earth’s atmosphere during flight and burn up there.
You received an award that was established in honor of Amelia Earhart. Did you know about the famous pilot before your application?
AE: I think the first time I actually read about Amelia Earhart was when I was a child, maybe in one of the “Was ist was” books (the German version of the How and Why Wonder Books). At that time, it didn’t even seem sensational to me that a woman, as an aviation pioneer, would make solo transatlantic and Pacific flights and attempt a round-the-world flight. And why not, she was very brave, I could relate to that. Today, of course, I realize what that meant at that time, what obstacles and prejudices stood in her way, and how extraordinary it was that she defied common stereotypes.
I wish that today, almost 90 years later, it could be said that it has become the norm for women to be pilots or work in technical professions. But even today it’s still considered ‘exceptional’. ‘Wow, you as a woman are doing Aerospace Engineering!’.
Formal hurdles have become smaller, without question, but it’s not enough just to create opportunities. The mental hurdles must be overcome, and long-established (gender) norms must change. Representation is the most important thing here.
Children and young people need role models with whom they can identify. In other words, not just the classic white males, but strong female and diverse role models, black people and people of color as heroic figures, because this reflects the diversity of society.Ariane Exle
If we exclude large parts of society in certain professions, we lose an incredible amount of talent and, above all, other new, important perspectives and approaches.
What is your professional goal for the future?
AE: Our project will continue for a while, and even continue after I complete my doctoral degree. What comes after that, let’s see. I don’t have any concrete plans for this, nor do I want any. For one thing, I trust that some opportunity will arise. For another thing, I wouldn’t set this as a goal you work towards and then, at some point, you’ve reached it. To me, a professional career, as well as life itself, is a process, a continuous development, tasks that make you grow, new knowledge and insights that open up new perspectives. So there will certainly be many different interesting stages and projects in this process.