Theoretical Astronomy - Integrating Astronomy and Chemistry

Integrating Astronomy and Chemistry

Astrochemistry, the overlap of the disciplines of astronomy and chemistry, is the study of the abundance and reactions of chemical elements and molecules in space, and their interaction with radiation. 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.

Infrared astronomy, for example, has revealed that the interstellar medium contains a suite of complex gas-phase carbon compounds called aromatic 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).

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, the consequences for stellar evolution, as well as stellar \'generations'. Indeed, the nuclear reactions in stars produce every naturally occurring chemical element. As the stellar 'generations' advance, the mass of the newly formed elements increases. A first-generation star uses elemental hydrogen (H) as a fuel source and produces helium (He). Hydrogen is the most abundant element, and it is the basic building block for all other elements as its nucleus has only one proton. Gravitational pull toward the center of a star creates massive amounts of heat and pressure, which cause nuclear fusion. Through this process of merging nuclear mass, heavier elements are formed. Lithium, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen are examples of elements that form in stellar fusion. After many stellar generations, very heavy elements are formed (e.g. iron and lead).

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