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Infographic showing the theorized origin of the chemical elements that make up the human body. Star-stuff.png
Infographic showing the theorized origin of the chemical elements that make up the human body.

Astrochemistry is the study of the abundance and reactions of molecules in the Universe, and their interaction with radiation. [1] The discipline is an overlap of astronomy and chemistry. The word "astrochemistry" may be applied to both the Solar System and the interstellar medium. The study of the abundance of elements and isotope ratios in Solar System objects, such as meteorites, is also called cosmochemistry, while the study of interstellar atoms and molecules and their interaction with radiation is sometimes called molecular astrophysics. The formation, atomic and chemical composition, evolution and fate of molecular gas clouds is of special interest, because it is from these clouds that solar systems form.



As an offshoot of the disciplines of astronomy and chemistry, the history of astrochemistry is founded upon the shared history of the two fields. The development of advanced observational and experimental spectroscopy has allowed for the detection of an ever-increasing array of molecules within solar systems and the surrounding interstellar medium. In turn, the increasing number of chemicals discovered by advancements in spectroscopy and other technologies have increased the size and scale of the chemical space available for astrochemical study.

History of spectroscopy

Observations of solar spectra as performed by Athanasius Kircher (1646), Jan Marek Marci (1648), Robert Boyle (1664), and Francesco Maria Grimaldi (1665) all predated Newton's 1666 work which established the spectral nature of light and resulted in the first spectroscope. [2] Spectroscopy was first used as an astronomical technique in 1802 with the experiments of William Hyde Wollaston, who built a spectrometer to observe the spectral lines present within solar radiation. [3] These spectral lines were later quantified through the work of Joseph Von Fraunhofer.

Spectroscopy was first used to distinguish between different materials after the release of Charles Wheatstone's 1835 report that the sparks given off by different metals have distinct emission spectra. [4] This observation was later built upon by Léon Foucault, who demonstrated in 1849 that identical absorption and emission lines result from the same material at different temperatures. An equivalent statement was independently postulated by Anders Jonas Ångström in his 1853 work Optiska Undersökningar, where it was theorized that luminous gases emit rays of light at the same frequencies as light which they may absorb.

This spectroscopic data began to take upon theoretical importance with Johann Balmer's observation that the spectral lines exhibited by samples of hydrogen followed a simple empirical relationship which came to be known as the Balmer Series. This series, a special case of the more general Rydberg Formula developed by Johannes Rydberg in 1888, was created to describe the spectral lines observed for Hydrogen. Rydberg's work expanded upon this formula by allowing for the calculation of spectral lines for multiple different chemical elements. [5] The theoretical importance granted to these spectroscopic results was greatly expanded upon the development of quantum mechanics, as the theory allowed for these results to be compared to atomic and molecular emission spectra which had been calculated a priori.

History of astrochemistry

While radio astronomy was developed in the 1930s, it was not until 1937 that any substantial evidence arose for the conclusive identification of an interstellar molecule [6] – up until this point, the only chemical species known to exist in interstellar space were atomic. These findings were confirmed in 1940, when McKellar et al. identified and attributed spectroscopic lines in an as-of-then unidentified radio observation to CH and CN molecules in interstellar space. [7] In the thirty years afterwards, a small selection of other molecules were discovered in interstellar space: the most important being OH, discovered in 1963 and significant as a source of interstellar oxygen, [8] and H2CO (Formaldehyde), discovered in 1969 and significant for being the first observed organic, polyatomic molecule in interstellar space [9]

The discovery of interstellar formaldehyde – and later, other molecules with potential biological significance such as water or carbon monoxide – is seen by some as strong supporting evidence for abiogenetic theories of life: specifically, theories which hold that the basic molecular components of life came from extraterrestrial sources. This has prompted a still ongoing search for interstellar molecules which are either of direct biological importance – such as interstellar glycine, discovered in 2009 [10] – or which exhibit biologically relevant properties like Chirality – an example of which (propylene oxide) was discovered in 2016 [11] – alongside more basic astrochemical research.


One particularly important experimental tool in astrochemistry is spectroscopy through the use of telescopes to measure the absorption and emission of light from molecules and atoms in various environments. By comparing astronomical observations with laboratory measurements, astrochemists can infer the elemental abundances, chemical composition, and temperatures of stars and interstellar clouds. This is possible because ions, atoms, and molecules have characteristic spectra: that is, the absorption and emission of certain wavelengths (colors) of light, often not visible to the human eye. However, these measurements have limitations, with various types of radiation (radio, infrared, visible, ultraviolet etc.) able to detect only certain types of species, depending on the chemical properties of the molecules. Interstellar formaldehyde was the first organic molecule detected in the interstellar medium.

Perhaps the most powerful technique for detection of individual chemical species is radio astronomy, which has resulted in the detection of over a hundred interstellar species, including radicals and ions, and organic (i.e. carbon-based) compounds, such as alcohols, acids, aldehydes, and ketones. One of the most abundant interstellar molecules, and among the easiest to detect with radio waves (due to its strong electric dipole moment), is CO (carbon monoxide). In fact, CO is such a common interstellar molecule that it is used to map out molecular regions. [12] The radio observation of perhaps greatest human interest is the claim of interstellar glycine, [13] the simplest amino acid, but with considerable accompanying controversy. [14] One of the reasons why this detection was controversial is that although radio (and some other methods like rotational spectroscopy) are good for the identification of simple species with large dipole moments, they are less sensitive to more complex molecules, even something relatively small like amino acids.

Moreover, such methods are completely blind to molecules that have no dipole. For example, by far the most common molecule in the universe is H2 (hydrogen gas), but it does not have a dipole moment, so it is invisible to radio telescopes. Moreover, such methods cannot detect species that are not in the gas-phase. Since dense molecular clouds are very cold (10 to 50 K [−263.1 to −223.2 °C; −441.7 to −369.7 °F]), most molecules in them (other than hydrogen) are frozen, i.e. solid. Instead, hydrogen and these other molecules are detected using other wavelengths of light. Hydrogen is easily detected in the ultraviolet (UV) and visible ranges from its absorption and emission of light (the hydrogen line). Moreover, most organic compounds absorb and emit light in the infrared (IR) so, for example, the detection of methane in the atmosphere of Mars [15] was achieved using an IR ground-based telescope, NASA's 3-meter Infrared Telescope Facility atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii. NASA's researchers use airborne IR telescope SOFIA and space telescope Spitzer for their observations, researches and scientific operations. [16] [17] Somewhat related to the recent detection of methane in the atmosphere of Mars. Christopher Oze, of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and his colleagues reported, in June 2012, that measuring the ratio of hydrogen and methane levels on Mars may help determine the likelihood of life on Mars. [18] [19] According to the scientists, "...low H2/CH4 ratios (less than approximately 40) indicate that life is likely present and active." [18] Other scientists have recently reported methods of detecting hydrogen and methane in extraterrestrial atmospheres. [20] [21]

Infrared astronomy has also revealed that the interstellar medium contains a suite of complex gas-phase carbon compounds called polyaromatic hydrocarbons, often abbreviated PAHs or PACs. These molecules, composed primarily of fused rings of carbon (either neutral or in an ionized state), are said to be the most common class of carbon compound in the galaxy. They are also the most common class of carbon molecule in meteorites and in cometary and asteroidal dust (cosmic dust). These compounds, as well as the amino acids, nucleobases, and many other compounds in meteorites, carry deuterium and isotopes of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen that are very rare on earth, attesting to their extraterrestrial origin. The PAHs are thought to form in hot circumstellar environments (around dying, carbon-rich red giant stars).

Infrared astronomy has also been used to assess the composition of solid materials in the interstellar medium, including silicates, kerogen-like carbon-rich solids, and ices. This is because unlike visible light, which is scattered or absorbed by solid particles, the IR radiation can pass through the microscopic interstellar particles, but in the process there are absorptions at certain wavelengths that are characteristic of the composition of the grains. [22] As above with radio astronomy, there are certain limitations, e.g. N2 is difficult to detect by either IR or radio astronomy.

Such IR observations have determined that in dense clouds (where there are enough particles to attenuate the destructive UV radiation) thin ice layers coat the microscopic particles, permitting some low-temperature chemistry to occur. Since hydrogen is by far the most abundant molecule in the universe, the initial chemistry of these ices is determined by the chemistry of the hydrogen. If the hydrogen is atomic, then the H atoms react with available O, C and N atoms, producing "reduced" species like H2O, CH4, and NH3. However, if the hydrogen is molecular and thus not reactive, this permits the heavier atoms to react or remain bonded together, producing CO, CO2, CN, etc. These mixed-molecular ices are exposed to ultraviolet radiation and cosmic rays, which results in complex radiation-driven chemistry. [22] Lab experiments on the photochemistry of simple interstellar ices have produced amino acids. [23] The similarity between interstellar and cometary ices (as well as comparisons of gas phase compounds) have been invoked as indicators of a connection between interstellar and cometary chemistry. This is somewhat supported by the results of the analysis of the organics from the comet samples returned by the Stardust mission but the minerals also indicated a surprising contribution from high-temperature chemistry in the solar nebula.


Transition from atomic to molecular gas at the border of the Orion molecular cloud. Turbulent border in Orion Nebula.jpg
Transition from atomic to molecular gas at the border of the Orion molecular cloud.

Research is progressing on the way in which interstellar and circumstellar molecules form and interact, e.g. by including non-trivial quantum mechanical phenomena for synthesis pathways on interstellar particles. [25] This research could have a profound impact on our understanding of the suite of molecules that were present in the molecular cloud when our solar system formed, which contributed to the rich carbon chemistry of comets and asteroids and hence the meteorites and interstellar dust particles which fall to the Earth by the ton every day.

The sparseness of interstellar and interplanetary space results in some unusual chemistry, since symmetry-forbidden reactions cannot occur except on the longest of timescales. For this reason, molecules and molecular ions which are unstable on Earth can be highly abundant in space, for example the H3+ ion.

Astrochemistry overlaps with astrophysics and nuclear physics in characterizing the nuclear reactions which occur in stars, as well as the structure of stellar interiors. If a star develops a largely convective envelope, dredge-up events can occur, bringing the products of nuclear burning to the surface. If the star is experiencing significant mass loss, the expelled material may contain molecules whose rotational and vibrational spectral transitions can be observed with radio and infrared telescopes. An interesting example of this is the set of carbon stars with silicate and water-ice outer envelopes. Molecular spectroscopy allows us to see these stars transitioning from an original composition in which oxygen was more abundant than carbon, to a carbon star phase where the carbon produced by helium burning is brought to the surface by deep convection, and dramatically changes the molecular content of the stellar wind. [26] [27]

In October 2011, scientists reported that cosmic dust contains organic matter ("amorphous organic solids with a mixed aromatic-aliphatic structure") that could be created naturally, and rapidly, by stars. [28] [29] [30]

On August 29, 2012, and in a world first, astronomers at Copenhagen University reported the detection of a specific sugar molecule, glycolaldehyde, in a distant star system. The molecule was found around the protostellar binary IRAS 16293-2422, which is located 400 light years from Earth. [31] [32] Glycolaldehyde is needed to form ribonucleic acid, or RNA, which is similar in function to DNA. This finding suggests that complex organic molecules may form in stellar systems prior to the formation of planets, eventually arriving on young planets early in their formation. [33]

In September, 2012, NASA scientists reported that polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), subjected to interstellar medium (ISM) conditions, are transformed, through hydrogenation, oxygenation and hydroxylation, to more complex organics – "a step along the path toward amino acids and nucleotides, the raw materials of proteins and DNA, respectively". [34] [35] Further, as a result of these transformations, the PAHs lose their spectroscopic signature which could be one of the reasons "for the lack of PAH detection in interstellar ice grains, particularly the outer regions of cold, dense clouds or the upper molecular layers of protoplanetary disks." [34] [35]

In February 2014, NASA announced the creation of an improved spectral database [36] for tracking polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the universe. According to scientists, more than 20% of the carbon in the universe may be associated with PAHs, possible starting materials for the formation of life. PAHs seem to have been formed shortly after the Big Bang, are widespread throughout the universe, and are associated with new stars and exoplanets. [37]

On August 11, 2014, astronomers released studies, using the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA) for the first time, that detailed the distribution of HCN, HNC, H2CO, and dust inside the comae of comets C/2012 F6 (Lemmon) and C/2012 S1 (ISON). [38] [39]

For the study of the recourses of chemical elements and molecules in the universe is developed the mathematical model of the molecules composition distribution in the interstellar environment on thermodynamic potentials by professor M.Yu. Dolomatov using methods of the probability theory, the mathematical and physical statistics and the equilibrium thermodynamics. [40] [41] [42] Based on this model are estimated the resources of life-related molecules, amino acids and the nitrogenous bases in the interstellar medium. The possibility of the oil hydrocarbons molecules formation is shown. The given calculations confirm Sokolov's and Hoyl's hypotheses about the possibility of the oil hydrocarbons formation in Space. Results are confirmed by data of astrophysical supervision and space researches.

In July 2015, scientists reported that upon the first touchdown of the Philae lander on comet 67/P 's surface, measurements by the COSAC and Ptolemy instruments revealed sixteen organic compounds, four of which were seen for the first time on a comet, including acetamide, acetone, methyl isocyanate and propionaldehyde. [43] [44] [45]

The chemical diversity in the different types of astronomical object is noteworthy. In this infographic, astronomical objects of different type and scale show their distinguishing chemical features. The Celestial Zoo infographic wikimedia.png
The chemical diversity in the different types of astronomical object is noteworthy. In this infographic, astronomical objects of different type and scale show their distinguishing chemical features.

See also

Related Research Articles

Interstellar medium Matter and radiation in the space between the star systems in a galaxy

In astronomy, the interstellar medium is the matter and radiation that exist in the space between the star systems in a galaxy. This matter includes gas in ionic, atomic, and molecular form, as well as dust and cosmic rays. It fills interstellar space and blends smoothly into the surrounding intergalactic space. The energy that occupies the same volume, in the form of electromagnetic radiation, is the interstellar radiation field.

Astronomical spectroscopy Study of astronomy using spectroscopy to measure the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation

Astronomical spectroscopy is the study of astronomy using the techniques of spectroscopy to measure the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation, including visible light, ultraviolet, X-ray, infrared and radio waves that radiate from stars and other celestial objects. A stellar spectrum can reveal many properties of stars, such as their chemical composition, temperature, density, mass, distance and luminosity. Spectroscopy can show the velocity of motion towards or away from the observer by measuring the Doppler shift. Spectroscopy is also used to study the physical properties of many other types of celestial objects such as planets, nebulae, galaxies, and active galactic nuclei.

Cosmochemistry Study of the chemical composition of matter in the universe

Cosmochemistry or chemical cosmology is the study of the chemical composition of matter in the universe and the processes that led to those compositions. This is done primarily through the study of the chemical composition of meteorites and other physical samples. Given that the asteroid parent bodies of meteorites were some of the first solid material to condense from the early solar nebula, cosmochemists are generally, but not exclusively, concerned with the objects contained within the Solar System.

Tholin Class of molecules formed by ultraviolet irradiation of organic compounds

Tholins are a wide variety of organic compounds formed by solar ultraviolet or cosmic ray irradiation of simple carbon-containing compounds such as carbon dioxide, methane or ethane, often in combination with nitrogen or water. Tholins are disordered polymer-like materials made of repeating chains of linked subunits and complex combinations of functional groups, typically nitriles and hydrocarbons and their degraded forms such as amines and phenyls. Tholins do not form naturally on modern-day Earth, but they are found in great abundance on the surfaces of icy bodies in the outer Solar System, and as reddish aerosols in the atmospheres of outer Solar System planets and moons.

Hydroxyl radical Neutral form of the hydroxide ion (OH−)

The hydroxyl radical is the diatomic molecule
. The hydroxyl radical is very stable as a dilute gas, but it decays very rapidly in the condensed phase. It is pervasive in some situations. Most notably the hydroxyl radicals are produced from the decomposition of hydroperoxides (ROOH) or, in atmospheric chemistry, by the reaction of excited atomic oxygen with water. It is also important in the field of radiation chemistry, since it leads to the formation of hydrogen peroxide and oxygen, which can enhance corrosion and SCC in coolant systems subjected to radioactive environments.

Diffuse interstellar bands

Diffuse interstellar bands (DIBs) are absorption features seen in the spectra of astronomical objects in the Milky Way and other galaxies. They are caused by the absorption of light by the interstellar medium. Circa 500 bands have now been seen, in ultraviolet, visible and infrared wavelengths.

Theoretical astronomy is the use of analytical and computational models based on principles from physics and chemistry to describe and explain astronomical objects and astronomical phenomena. Theorists in astronomy endeavor to create theoretical models and from the results predict observational consequences of those models. The observation of a phenomenon predicted by a model allows astronomers to select between several alternate or conflicting models as the one best able to describe the phenomena.

Cosmic dust Dust floating in space

Cosmic dust, also called extraterrestrial dust or space dust, is dust which exists in outer space, or has fallen on Earth. Most cosmic dust particles measure between a few molecules and 0.1 mm. Larger particles are called meteoroids. Cosmic dust can be further distinguished by its astronomical location: intergalactic dust, interstellar dust, interplanetary dust and circumplanetary dust.

Trihydrogen cation Ion

The trihydrogen cation or protonated molecular hydrogen is a cation with formula H+
, consisting of three hydrogen nuclei (protons) sharing two electrons.

PAH world hypothesis Hypothesis about the origin of life

The PAH world hypothesis is a speculative hypothesis that proposes that polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), known to be abundant in the universe, including in comets, and assumed to be abundant in the primordial soup of the early Earth, played a major role in the origin of life by mediating the synthesis of RNA molecules, leading into the RNA world. However, as yet, the hypothesis is untested.

Atomic and molecular astrophysics

Atomic astrophysics is concerned with performing atomic physics calculations that will be useful to astronomers and using atomic data to interpret astronomical observations. Atomic physics plays a key role in astrophysics as astronomers' only information about a particular object comes through the light that it emits, and this light arises through atomic transitions.

Ethynyl radical Chemical compound

The ethynyl radical is an organic compound with the chemical formula C≡CH. It is a simple molecule that does not occur naturally on Earth but is abundant in the interstellar medium. It was first observed by electron spin resonance isolated in a solid argon matrix at liquid helium temperatures in 1963 by Cochran and coworkers at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. It was first observed in the gas phase by Tucker and coworkers in November 1973 toward the Orion Nebula, using the NRAO 11-meter radio telescope. It has since been detected in a large variety of interstellar environments, including dense molecular clouds, bok globules, star forming regions, the shells around carbon-rich evolved stars, and even in other galaxies.

Hydrogen isocyanide is a chemical with the molecular formula HNC. It is a minor tautomer of hydrogen cyanide (HCN). Its importance in the field of astrochemistry is linked to its ubiquity in the interstellar medium.

Propynylidyne is a chemical compound that has been identified in interstellar space.

Interstellar formaldehyde (a topic relevant to astrochemistry) was first discovered in 1969 by L. Snyder et al. using the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Formaldehyde (H2CO) was detected by means of the 111 - 110 ground state rotational transition at 4830 MHz. On 11 August 2014, astronomers released studies, using the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA) for the first time, that detailed the distribution of HCN, HNC, H2CO, and dust inside the comae of comets C/2012 F6 (Lemmon) and C/2012 S1 (ISON).

Protonated hydrogen cyanide Chemical compound

HCNH+, also known as protonated hydrogen cyanide, is a molecular ion of astrophysical interest. It also exists in the condensed state when formed by superacids.

Cyano radical Chemical compound

The cyano radical (or cyanido radical) is a radical with molecular formula CN, sometimes written CN. The cyano radical was one of the first detected molecules in the interstellar medium, in 1938. Its detection and analysis was influential in astrochemistry. The discovery was confirmed with a coudé spectrograph, which was made famous and credible due to this detection. ·CN has been observed in both diffuse clouds and dense clouds. Usually, CN is detected in regions with hydrogen cyanide, hydrogen isocyanide, and HCNH+, since it is involved in the creation and destruction of these species (see also Cyanogen).

Interstellar ice consists of grains of volatiles in the ice phase that form in the interstellar medium. Ice and dust grains form the primary material out of which the Solar System was formed. Grains of ice are found in the dense regions of molecular clouds, where new stars are formed. Temperatures in these regions can be as low as 10 K, allowing molecules that collide with grains to form an icy mantle. Thereafter, atoms undergo thermal motion across the surface, eventually forming bonds with other atoms. This results in the formation of water and methanol. Indeed, the ices are dominated by water and methanol, as well as ammonia, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. Frozen formaldehyde and molecular hydrogen may also be present. Found in lower abundances are nitriles, ketones, esters and carbonyl sulfide. The mantles of interstellar ice grains are generally amorphous, only becoming crystalline in the presence of a star.

Karin Ingegerd Öberg is a Swedish astrochemist. She is a Professor of Astronomy at Harvard University and leader of the Öberg Astrochemistry Group at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Her research concerns star formation, planet formation, and stellar evolution in relation to organic molecules, which are necessary to determine the origins of life on Earth and elsewhere. In April 2015, her group discovered the first complex organic molecule in a protoplanetary disk.


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