What’s on : Lectures

Interstellar snowflakes: from simple molecules to life

Lectures
Date
12 Nov 2019
Start time
7:30 PM
Venue
Tempest Anderson Hall
Speaker
Dr Catherine Walsh, University of Leeds

Event Information

Interstellar snowflakes: from simple molecules to life
Dr Catherine Walsh, University of Leeds

The interstellar medium, the space between the stars, appears dark and empty to our eyes. However, it is full of massive clouds of dust and gas that shine with light at long wavelengths: these clouds are the formation sites of the next generation of stars and their surrounding planetary systems.

Star-forming clouds have a rich and exotic chemistry that builds large molecules despite the harsh conditions in space. We can observe light from these molecules using state-of-the-art telescopes. These observations are revealing for the first time the composition of planet-building material in nearby young planet-forming systems. We will explore the role of molecules in star and planet formation, and speculate on the importance of interstellar chemistry on seeding life on “life-friendly” planets.

Astrophysics mini theme”

Member’s report

The interstellar medium, the space between the stars, appears dark and empty to our eyes. However, it is full of massive clouds of dust and gas. These clouds are the formation sites of the next generation of stars and their surrounding planetary systems. Although they cannot be seen using optical telescopes, the clouds can be observed using telescopes that operate at wavelengths a thousand times longer than the wavelength of visible light, i.e. wavelengths of around 1mm.

One such telescope is the ALMA telescope high up in the mountains of Chile. ALMA has 66 collecting apertures, parabolic reflector antennas, with a total area of 6500m2. It operates at wavelengths from 0.3mm to 3mm.

Star-forming clouds have a rich and exotic chemistry that builds large molecules despite the harsh conditions in space. The dust allows water molecules in the form of ice to collect on the particle surfaces and over time these interstellar snowflakes host a wealth of chemical reactions that result in organic molecules of surprising variety and complexity. State-of-the-art telescopes such as ALMA observe the spectra of these molecules at millimetre wavelengths allowing their identification.

These organic molecules are potentially the building blocks of the amino acids found at the heart of biological systems here on earth. Whilst complete amino acids are yet to be detected on the interstellar snowflakes, we can speculate on the potential of interstellar chemistry to seed life on the next generations of “life-friendly” planets.

Andy Marvin