Universiteit Leiden

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Melissa McClure

Tracking the origin and evolution of molecules in space

How do molecules originate and evolve in space? And how does that ultimately determine the chemical composition of planets and their atmospheres? The Dutch Astrochemistry Network (DANIII) receives 1.6 million euros from NWO to find out. A large group of Leiden astronomers and chemists is contributing: ‘With the unprecedented sensitivity of the James Webb Space Telescope, we can look more precisely than ever at areas in space previously inaccessible.’

A year and a half ago, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) took off into space. The launch opened up unprecedented opportunities for new astrochemical research, especially in terms of observing infrared radiation.

Interpreting space data with lab and computer work

A team of Leiden scientists successfully submitted several research proposals. Melissa McClure, Harold Linnartz, Serena Viti, Ewine van Dishoeck, KoJu Chuang (Leiden Observatory) and Thanja Lamberts (LIC and Observatory) will soon start their research on the role of interstellar ice in the formation of both smaller and larger and increasingly complex molecules in space (see box). These include water and methane ice, but also frozen sugars and amino acids.

Their research will help interpret JWST's treasure trove of new observations through lab measurements and computer modelling. With this knowledge, the researchers can investigate how molecules evolve in space, and how this is affected by factors such as temperature and the amount of hard UV-light.

The building blocks of life

The molecules that form the building blocks of life, such as water, sugars and amino acids, form long before stars and planets are born. This happens deep inside clouds of gas and dust. These clouds will eventually collapse under their own gravity. In the process, new stars are formed, surrounded by disks of gas and dust from which planets eventually emerge. During these various phases, bar-cold dust particles become covered with a layer of ice. The ice functions as a reservoir for molecules, in which particles can efficiently react with each other. Thus, increasingly complex molecules can also form on these icy dust particles over time.

Read more: Tracing space ice and the building blocks of life

From dust particle to planet

In total, Leiden scientists lead three of the seven projects. Harold Linnartz, professor of Laboratory Astrophysics, makes space ice in the lab. Melissa McClure and Thanja Lamberts also lead a project. They interpret the JWST data using chemical models. Leiden scientists are also involved in the other projects. The other projects within DANIII focus more on detecting molecules in the gas phase, including hydrocarbons.

The added value of the network lies in combining all the data, says Linnartz: ‘By pooling all our knowledge, together we can explore how space ice and hydrocarbons evaluate and ultimately co-determine the chemical composition of planets, their atmospheres and also any moons around them.’

What ice is where and what does this tell us?

Linnartz: ‘The focus of DANIII is on ice and gas and their interaction: what ice is where and what does that tell us about the formation of complex organic molecules in space? How do these molecules evolve and how does that ultimately contribute to the composition of planets in our own solar system and beyond? Questions we can now answer with JWST better DAN -pun intended- ever before.’

Network with many disciplines and exceptional diversity

DAN is an interdisciplinary network established by NWO in 2010. DAN brings together experts in astronomical observations, quantum chemical calculations, modelling and laboratory astrophysics. In addition, the network has access to various JWST observing programmes and actively participates in the scientific interpretation of the novel data.

The application was submitted by Prof. Dr. Inga Kamp of the University of Groningen, together with McClure, Lamberts en Candian. They represented a team of researchers from six Dutch research institutes and universities, including the University of Groningen, Radboud University, University of Amsterdam, Leiden University, the Netherlands Institute for Space Research (SRON), and TU Delft. What distinguishes the network is its exceptional balance in diversity, with an almost equal ratio of male (10) to female (11) researchers, and of astrophysicists (10) to chemists (11). Also, four of the seven subprojects are led by junior staff members.

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