Research interests

My scientific curiosity is driven by advances in exoplanet detections in the last decades, which widened and enriched the field of planetary science. My work aims to better understand and characterize the evolutionary processes from which habitable worlds like the Earth originate and how these planets evolve on main-sequence timescales.

Ultimately, I seek to identify the main driving factors behind the emergence and preservation of life-supporting environments, and how frequent such places are in our vast universe. In the following I outline some key ares of my research, which I believe to be fundamental controls of what «makes» a habitable world.

Terrestrial Planet Formation

The only life-harboring place in the galaxy we know about is our own home planet: Earth. How do you build such a world? Are we special or rather the cosmic norm? Already comparisons within the solar system show us that there are a number of characteristics that set Earth apart from its solar system siblings, be it the active carbon-silicate cycle, a clement and liquid water surface, an exceptionally large moon, and many more. Some of these characteristics are rooted in formation, and therefore we must unravel the poorly understood process that make such a world possible in order to understand what else is out there.

Doing this will require fundamental advances on multiple levels and across scientific disciplines. Therefore, I actively initiate collaboration and engage with like-minded researchers from astronomy, geophysics, geochemistry, atmospheric sciences, and more.

Rocky Exoplanets

I personally believe that – in retrospect – the exoplanet revolution will be seen as similarly important as the Keplerian revolution. For the first time in human history we have direct evidence for planetary objects revolving stars other than the Sun. So far, we just got a glimpse of the unimaginable diversity out there. The next decades will bring a multitude of new detection missions that will truly revolutionize our understanding. New kinds of theoretical models that robustly explain and predict these new observations are a key element in helping us to make sense of what we find.

I develop and apply theoretical and numerical tools in order to expand our understanding of the solar system planets to the vastly unexplored realm of the exoplanet population. What are the primary types of rocky planets? What kind of interiors and atmospheres do super-Earth planets develop? Are the different types of exoplanets a continuum, or do certain physical effects divide the regime into a few archetypes and classes?

Volatile delivery

The chemical and physical evolution in its entirety is strongly influenced by the mixture and partitioning of major volatile elements available to a planet. The bulk of volatiles is delivered during formation and, therefore, whether a planet ends up as a gas or ice giant, ocean world, or desiccated desert planet is mainly controlled via the rate and form of volatile delivery during accretion.

My work primarily concerns the nature and chemistry of the precursor material of rocky planets: When and how many volatiles are delivered to the bulk of the rocky body? What are efficient methods to lose them and do they partition into the core, mantle, or atmosphere? Ultimately, I seek to understand which chemical and geological characteristics of surface conditions these processes define for a rocky planet.

Early surface environments

Life on Earth emerged during the first billion year after the formation of the solar system. How, why? Major theories suggest that either the first prebiotic reactions started in restricted surface water pools (ponds) that were subject to repeated wet and dry cycles, limited levels of UV flux from the young Sun, and had access to a supply of crucial feedstock molecules to kickstart biochemical evolution. Another option may be hydrothermal vents at mid-ocean ridges on the sea floor.

Such hypotheses set very distinct requirements for the early planetary surface, mantle and atmosphere that define a phase space of possible planetary evolution sequences: continents or volcanic arcs (or more broadly: elevation above mean ocean levels) with a sufficient supply of nutrients, or ocean floor magmatism. These constraints can be used and compared against geodynamical models in order to better constrain the conditions of early Earth and early Mars and define conditions for exoplanets that may harbor similar conditions for abiogenesis.

Magma oceans

The early surface environment of Earth resulted from the the most violent planetary event you can envision: the direct collision with a protoplanet, melting and evaporating the majority of mantle and resetting the clock on its internal geochemical evolution. The cooling of the resulting magma ocean and its internal dynamics crucially determined the mode and pace of core formation, and the build-up of the earliest atmosphere on Earth.

With my models I aim to better understand the interaction of such magma oceans on terrestrial bodies and the resulting consequences for their structure and long-term evolution. In astronomical terms, the 'afterglow' from such a cataclysmic event in young extrasolar systems may be directly detectable with near-future ground- and space-based telescopes, revealing a treasure trove of insights into the chemistry and interaction between surface magma oceans and their blanketing atmospheres.

Core formation

As a result of melting in forming terrrestrial bodies, such as planetesimals and planets, their chemical structure is segregated into core, mantle, crust, and atmosphere. The main channels of core formation and their timescales strongly influence the chemical composition of the earliest atmospheres and the properties of the resulting silicate mantles.

Using new types of fluid dynamical models, which simultaneously treat different chemical phases within the solid, liquid, and volatile components of the aggregate, I investigate how the dynamics of the silicates shape the core formation process, and thus the evolution of the interconnected core-mantle-atmosphere system.

Solar system origin

Within your and my lifetime the solar system will remain our main source of information about the processes that shape planetary systems. Even though just(?) one incarnation within an uncountable myriad of planets, Earth and its unique history are right under our feet and directly accessible to observations and experiments. However, in the grand view of things it is the special features of the Sun, Earth and other solar system objects that may bring us closer to an understanding of the true nature of the exoplanet census.

Which processes most strongly determined the current structure of the solar system? What does a planetary system, and rocky planet, need in order to sustain conditions suitable for prebiotic chemistry? By constraining the evolution and history of the solar system in the physical and geochemical parameter space I aim to single out the processes that we want to look out for in order to distinguish one planetary system from another and to find the ones that may resemble ours.

Circumstellar disks

Newly formed worlds emerge from a cloud of stellar debris circling the forming protostar. The evolution of this planet-forming disk, its interaction with the protostar, the fluid dynamics of the gas, the interaction of the dust particles with themselves and the accreting protoplanets determine what kind of planetary system forms, what structure and bulk chemical composition the fully-fledged planets start out with.

Motivated through my primary interest in the growth and evolution of terrestrial planets I investigate the timescales and nature of growth during the disk phase. What were the primary carriers of volatiles? Is the majority of mass delivered via pebbles or planetesimals? What are the possible and interconnected source reservoirs in a disk that shape the birth conditions of an accreting planet?

Star-forming environments

The Sun did not form in isolation. Rather, it was born together within many, perhaps thousands, of stellar siblings. All of these emerged from a giant molecular cloud core, and all of them interacted intensely with each other right after their birth: the aggressive UV environment and outflows from massive stars in young star-forming environments create hostile environments for their smaller siblings. But perhaps they also provided just the right conditions for systems such our solar system by truncating the disk, shutting off the mass flow from its outer part, or delivering crucial isotopes that in turn altered the structure of terrestrial planets.

My research tries to constrain and measure these processes in order to gain insights into the statistics and potential influences of planetary systems during their birth. These environmental constraints need to be taken into account to lead to a holistic understanding of what «shapes» the birth and life cycle of rocky worlds.



Image credits (from top to bottom): Gemini Observatory/AURA/L. Cook, ESO/M. Kornmesser, M. A. Garlick/space-art.co.uk/U. Warwick/U. Cambridge, SwRI/S. Marchi, IPGP/A. Pitrou, Goran D, avertedimagination.com/A. Friedman, ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/M. Kornmesser (ESO), ESA/Hubble/NASA/Aloisi/Ford/J. Schmidt