New Research Center Will Free Chemistry
from Earth's Bonds

Dave Finley

Chemistry of the Universe

Credit: Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF


The NRAO is a partner in a new research center that will combine the tools of chemistry and astronomy to use the unique laboratory of interstellar space to free the study of basic chemistry from the restrictive bonds of Earth.

The Center for Chemistry of the Universe will allow scientists to explore new types of chemical reactions that occur under the extreme conditions of space. The center will combine laboratory experiments, theoretical studies, and radio-telescope observations to dramatically expand our understanding of the processes that build molecules that may "seed" young planets with the building blocks of life.

The Center, directed by Brooks Pate, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Virginia, forges a unique research collaboration among leading scientists in the field of astrochemistry from the University of Arizona, The Ohio State University, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, and a group of chemists and physicists at the University of Virginia (UVa) engaged in research to understand the fundamentals of chemical reactions.

The team received an initial grant of $1.5 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to form the center during the next two years. If the NSF then fully approves the initiative, the foundation will provide funding of $4 million per year for up to ten years.

The new center will bring together laboratory researchers, theoreticians, and observers using radio telescopes of the NRAO and the Arizona Radio Observatory (ARO). The group of chemists participating in the center have discovered more than half of the new interstellar molecules identified worldwide in the past 18 months.

A central theme of chemistry is to understand how chemical reactions work. Most of our current knowledge of how molecules are formed came from laboratory experiments with solutions. However, in interstellar space, reactions occur in gases and on surfaces, such as on tiny cosmic dust grains. The new center will focus on studying these poorly understood processes, and thus break chemistry out of its Earth-bound constraints.

The new center also will pursue an extensive educational effort, including student programs, new courses at UVa, and displays and outreach activities at the NRAO's Green Bank Science Center and other museums.