Have you ever wondered how the universe forms the stars and planets that we see in the night sky? An international team of researchers has uncovered a critical step in the chemical evolution of molecules in cosmic “stellar nurseries” that could help explain the process. In this blog post, we will discuss the team’s findings and explore how small building blocks can become big building blocks in the formation of stars and planets.
Stellar nurseries are vast clouds of cold gas and dust in space where trillions of molecules swirl together over millions of years. The collapse of these interstellar clouds eventually gives rise to young stars and planets. In these cold molecular clouds, the team found a molecule called “ortho”-benzyne that can readily combine with others to form a wide range of larger organic molecules. This molecule has the potential to drive complex chemistry in cold environments, which is an exciting discovery for cosmochemists.
The team used light generated by a giant facility called a synchrotron light source to identify the products of chemical reactions. They saw that “ortho”-benzyne and methyl radicals, another common constituent of molecular clouds, readily combine to form larger and more complex organic compounds. The team then drew on computer models to explore the role of “ortho”-benzyne in a stellar nursery spread out over several light years deep in space. The results were promising: The models generated clouds of gas containing roughly the same mix of organic molecules that astronomers had observed in TMC-1 using telescopes.
The team’s findings reveal how certain large organic molecules may form inside these clouds, which is one tiny step in the eons-long chemical journey that carbon atoms undergo. This chemistry is so much more complex than we thought, even at the earliest stages of star formation. The team still has a lot of work to do to fully understand all the reactions happening in TMC-1, such as how organic molecules in space also pick up nitrogen atoms.
We hope that this blog post has given you a better understanding of the team’s findings and the complex chemistry that is happening in stellar nurseries. The team’s research could help us better understand how we go from small building blocks to larger molecules and how these molecules form stars and planets.