Combining the cutting-edge capabilities of the ALMA telescope with newly-developed laboratory techniques, scientists are opening a completely new era for deciphering the chemistry of the Universe. A research team demonstrated their breakthrough using ALMA data from observations of the gas in a star-forming region in the constellation Orion.
Using new technology both at the telescope and in the laboratory, the scientists were able to greatly improve and speed the process of identifying the "fingerprints" of chemicals in the cosmos, enabling studies that until now would have been either impossible or prohibitively time-consuming.
"We've shown that, with ALMA, we're going to be able to do real chemical analysis of the gaseous 'nurseries' where new stars and planets are forming, unrestricted by many of the limitations we've had in the past," said Anthony Remijan of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, VA.
ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, is under construction on the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, at an elevation of 16,500 feet. When completed in 2013, its 66 high-precision antennas and advanced electronics will provide scientists with unprecedented capabilities to explore the Universe as seen at wavelengths between longer-wavelength radio and infrared.
Those wavelengths are particularly rich in clues about the presence of specific molecules in the cosmos. More than 170 molecules, including organic molecules such as sugars and alcohols, have been discovered in space. Such chemicals are common in the giant clouds of gas and dust in which new stars and planets are forming. "We know that many of the chemical precursors to life exist in these stellar nurseries even before the planets form," said Thomas Wilson of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.
Molecules in space rotate and vibrate, and each molecule has a particular set of rotational and vibrational conditi
|Contact: Dave Finley|
National Radio Astronomy Observatory