Stars 'R' Us
Astrochemistry in the laboratory.
Dr Martin McCoustra.
University of Nottingham.
Dr Wendy Brown and Dr Serena Viti.
University College London.
Professor Nigel Mason.
The Open University.
Dr Robert Massey.
The National Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory, Greenwich.
Dr Helen Fraser.
All the atoms that make up our bodies and the environment that surrounds us were forged in the nuclear furnaces of ancient stars. But how were those individual atoms built into the complex molecules of life after they were dispersed into space during the stars' violent death? The answer is being provided by a new discipline combining astronomy and chemistry - the science of astrochemistry.
The space between the stars looks empty, but the arrival of radio astronomy in the 1950s and 1960s first revealed many relatively simple species such as water, carbon monoxide and ammonia and then increasingly complex carbon-containing molecules. The chemistry of space is being slowly unveiled by more powerful spectroscopic techniques that reveal its impact on the evolution of the Universe.
How much chemistry can go on in space? Astronomical observations have already revealed over 100 different types of molecule in the space between the stars. They range from simple hydrogen molecules through species unstable on Earth to the precursors of life as we know it. These limitless voids are very cold (close to absolute zero at around -260 °C or less) and with very low pressure: not the place to look for chemistry one might think. Recent work has shown that the key to much of this chemistry is in chemical reactions that happen in the tenuous interstellar gas and on icy grains of dust.
New telescopes based on the ground and in space have been used by astronomers to probe the outcome of these chemical reactions happening literally light years from the laboratory. Meanwhile, chemists and physicists on Earth are attempting to recreate the reaction conditions found in space.
'Astrochemistry combines the astronomer's need to understand the chemical evolution of the Universe with the chemist's desire to investigate chemical reactions in extreme environments', says Martin McCoustra. 'Our work is unique and focuses on the simulation in the laboratory of the chemistry that could take place on the surface of the icy dust grains - processes that astronomers have realised must be understood if the formation of stars an