University of Virginia, Charlottesville On Cusp of Revolution in Astrochemistry

November 17, 2011 — Astronomy has always been about finding our place in the universe, about seeking origins. A new international astronomical observatory called ALMA will bring new insights to our understanding of the farthest reaches of space and answers to our most fundamental questions as to how the universe evolved and became what it is, and how the building blocks of life began.

University of Virginia astronomers and chemists are at the forefront of this adventure.

"We really are poised to lead the way on a hugely important aspect of this venture, which is to better understand the chemistry of the universe," said astronomer Kelsey Johnson of U.Va.'s College of Arts & Sciences, who chairs ALMA's science advisory committee. "Astrochemistry is an emerging field on the cusp of revolution, and U.Va. scientists have anticipated this and prepared for it."

ALMA is the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, a new $1.3 billion radio telescope in the high desert of Chile. Decades in planning and years in construction, ALMA is the most technologically advanced astronomical observatory ever built, far exceeding the capabilities of any other, including the Hubble Space Telescope.

 "It's really going to not only enhance our view of the universe, but also change the way we view it. The new science is going to be astounding," Johnson said.

ALMA made its first observations on Sept. 30, streaming startling images and reams of new data to scientists around the world. When construction is fully complete in 2013, the observatory will consist of 66 radio antennas configured to provide the observational capabilities of a single massive antenna that otherwise would be impossible to build.

The United States has contributed nearly $500 million to its development through the National Science Foundation-funded National Radio Astronomy Observatory headquartered on the U.Va. Grounds in Charlottesville.

"U.Va. is uniquely positioned to establish an international leadership role in ALMA science," said U.Va. chemist Brooks Pate, also from the College, who leads a multidisciplinary effort in the chemistry of the universe at the University. "We have a world-class team of chemists, astronomers, physicists and engineers to direct the science, make observations, collect data and sort through it to bring new understanding to the makings of the universe."

ALMA will provide chemists and astronomers with high-resolution images of the way molecules are distributed in the universe. This will help scientists develop a new and essentially first-time understanding of space chemistry – how the original simple elements of hydrogen and helium formed into more complex elements, how the chemistry of stars spread out across the universe and how planets formed, including Earth.

"We've really only obtained hints, up to this point, of the chemical processes that led to life on this planet," Pate said. "ALMA will allow us to move beyond our understanding of Earthbound chemistry to the very source chemistry in the universe that led to everything else, including amino acids, the precursors to DNA and life."

To further its pursuit of this understanding, U.Va. hired two astrochemists to sort through and give meaning to the mass of data that has begun to stream in from ALMA.

One is Eric Herbst, a preeminent pioneer in the emerging field of astrochemistry, who came to U.Va. earlier this year as the Commonwealth Professor of Chemistry from a distinguished career at The Ohio State University. He holds joint appointments in the chemistry, astronomy and physics departments. The other is Karin Oberg, currently a Hubble Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who will be appointed to the astronomy and chemistry departments.

"The chemistry of space is why we are here," Herbst noted. "The exotic chemistry out there relates to the everyday chemistry here, and so there is a lot to learn from astrochemistry about how all of this came together, from the stars to the planets. With ALMA we hope to identify regions of space with water, complex and pre-biotic molecules" – or molecules, like amino acids, that are building blocks for life.

Pate adds that areas of astrochemistry that currently are under speculation, such as how exotic molecules are formed, will now be tested, analyzed and re-evaluated. New understandings will emerge.

"We might begin to see the chemical processes that allowed for the forming of life on this planet, and can look to regions of space where the same conditions may be occurring or have already occurred," Pate said. "We hope to identify regions where there may be other life."

"There will be exponential growth in knowledge," Herbst added. "At present we can't identify a large fraction of the molecules in space. There are missing chunks of fundamental knowledge, and we're going to begin to fill in those gaps. There is so much new chemistry to learn."

One of the biggest challenges facing researchers will be sorting through the reams of data that will stream in non-stop from ALMA. "Extracting the scientific content of the enormous data set will push the technological limits of large-scale computing and require scientists to develop new software tools to rapidly analyze data sets that are too large to directly view," Pate said.

He noted that the development of ALMA has been a driver for major technological advances in the field of terahertz spectroscopy, a rapidly moving field with deep connections to the science and technology community in Charlottesville. Solid-state terahertz devices are needed for ALMA's spectrographs for chemical sensing and imaging.

In addition to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory engineers who have designed and assembled ALMA's detectors, U.Va. electrical and computer engineering professors Art Lichtenberger and Robert Weikle, in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, are developing new devices for the emerging field of terahertz spectroscopy and imaging. Charlottesville-based Virginia Diodes Inc., a company that grew from the research program of U.Va. electrical and computer engineering professor Thomas Crowe, is a world leader in the commercialization of solid-state terahertz light sources and detectors. The National Ground Intelligence Center and the Defense Intelligence Agency facility in Charlottesville also are users of this technology.

"Charlottesville is uniquely poised to become the leading research and development commercialization center for terahertz technology, and this should lead to local jobs in high-tech fields," Pate said.

ALMA research also will spin off public outreach and K-12 education initiatives. High-resolution images and findings from ALMA science will be used to educate the public on the newly discovered wonders of space, and the University will develop outreach programs to the local community and schools to highlight ways that Charlottesville is shaping up to be a premier national center for breakthroughs in our understanding of our place in the universe.

— By Fariss Samarrai

Media Contact

Fariss Samarrai

Media Relations Associate Office of University Communications