You might not think that a collaboration to study the chemical and physical properties of ancient Attic pottery would have anything to do with space missions, but, well, you’d be mistaken.

Earlier this year, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded nearly $500,000 to scientists from the Getty Conservation Institute, Stanford’s National Accelerator Laboratory (SLAC) and the Aerospace Corporation to do just that.

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Among other objectives, it is hoped that the project will improve our understanding of iron-spinel chemistry, which is critical to the advanced ceramics used for thermal protection in aerospace applications, such as protective tiles on the Mars Rover Sojourner, or the fleet of space shuttles, for example.

“Ceramic components are used all through space technology and space vehicles,” materials scientist Mark Zurbuchen told “We need to continue to learn about interactions of components within these materials to help us better understand any real-world issues that may arise in actual space components.”

Attic pottery features red and black figures (see image, right) and was a fixture in ancient Greece from the sixth to fourth centuries B.C. The precision required to produce the impressive detail seen in such pieces is very high, and our understanding of the methods and techniques used by various artists — and how those evolved over time — is incomplete.

Attic pottery was created by artisans working with their hands with clay and pigment. Space mission ceramic tiles, in contrast, are made with high-tech laser beams controlled by a computerized machine tooling system.

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However, “Something doesn’t need to be complex to be sophisticated. If we can understand the technology with which these works of art were made, we can use the knowledge for a surprisingly wide variety of applications,” Karen Trentalman, a Getty conservation scientist who is leading the collaboration, explained.

The tiles used in space missions must be able to withstand a wide range of extreme temperatures, from as low as -250 degrees F (the chill of deep space) to as high as 3000 degrees F (during re-entry).

The iron-spinel ceramic pigments found in Attic pottery are able to remain chemically stable at very high temperatures. It’s the degree of iron oxidation that provides the red and black coloring associating with Attic pottery. (Modern versions of such pigments are typically synthesized from mixtures of iron oxide and chromium oxide.)

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The researchers involved in the Getty project are using a technique called x-ray absorption near edge structure (XANES) — a type of spectroscopy — to determine the states of iron oxidation in pottery fragments, combined with x-ray absorption fine structure (EXAFS) to glean more information about the molecular structure of the iron minerals used.

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From this, it is hoped they can identify telltale material “signatures” of the specific artists who created certain pottery fragments. This can shed light on how the techniques used might have changed and evolved over time, and help with classifying unsigned works. It could, in turn, also lead to improved conservation methods and better ceramic tiles for the aerospace industry — including NASA.

Image (top): The underside of space shuttle Discovery before docking with the space station (NASA)