Spotlight on Science: Astrochemistry

astrochemistryAstrochemistry, like the name would suggest, is the study of the chemistry in stars, celestial bodies and everything else in between. While astrophysics has been around since the times of Copernicus and Aristotle, astrochemistry was a bit of a late bloomer. It was only until about 60 years ago that people started to realise that there were molecules in space.

Astrochemistry is just like regular chemistry except the reaction conditions are very different from what molecules experience on earth. These extraterrestrial molecules withstand extremes in temperature and pressure, but most significantly… astrochemicals are lonely. The molecules in space are so far apart that chemical reactions between two species are very uncommon, much like physicists at a party.

 

Network of astrochemistry working out
Fig1. A sequence of events for studying molecular astrochemistry [2].

Of course, astrochemists can’t just pop out into space to measure the molecules they are interested in…so how does one go about studying molecules in space? Well, astrochemists have a long distance relationship with their molecules. Perhaps the most common way to study these molecules is through a combination of molecular spectroscopy and radio astronomy (Fig1). What this means is that the chemists recreate the conditions of space in their laboratories using large vacuum pumps to produce cold molecules in the gas phase and cause reactions that could occur in the medium between stars (most aptly named, the interstellar medium). Once you’ve made some molecules you measure them the way any chemist would…shine a bunch of light on them and look at the characteristic ways they vibrate. These vibrations look a lot like a fingerprint (Fig2) and can be used to identify molecules in space using radio astronomy. To date, more than 150 molecules have been detected in the interstellar medium include Buckminsterfullerene (C60) and several organic molecules essential to the origins of life.

Molecular spectroscopy
Fig2. Molecular fingerprints: molecular spectroscopy (B) helped to solve the mystery of what astrochemical species are responsible for the diffuse interstellar bands (A) [7]

Since the 1970s, astrochemistry has grown to encompass a huge amount of subject matter, with researchers now studying prebiotic molecules in space [1], chemistry in interstellar clouds [3,4], on ices of interstellar grains [5,6] and in planetary atmospheres [6]. The great hope of astrochemists is to explain some of life’s ultimate unsolved mysteries: how planets and stars form, why molecules react the way they do, and the chemical origins of life.

Ilsa Cooke is one of your esteemed exec members! She’s written this piece on her chosen field of research, and let’s be honest, adding space to anything makes it much cooler.

1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eQCniTsm_Uo

2. http://chemistry.emory.edu/faculty/widicusweaver/overview.html

3. http://bjm.scs.illinois.edu/research.php

4. http://chem.virginia.edu/faculty-research/faculty/eric-herbst/

5. http://people.virginia.edu/~kio3n/Research.html

6. http://www.chem.hawaii.edu/Bil301/mission.htm

7. Oka, T. and McCall, B. J. Science. 331, 293-294 (2011).

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