Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Mysterious molecules in space

30.07.2014

Researchers at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics finger silicon-capped hydrocarbons as possible source of mysterious 'diffuse interstellar bands'

Over the vast, empty reaches of interstellar space, countless small molecules tumble quietly though the cold vacuum. Forged in the fusion furnaces of ancient stars and ejected into space when those stars exploded, these lonely molecules account for a significant amount of all the carbon, hydrogen, silicon and other atoms in the universe. In fact, some 20 percent of all the carbon in the universe is thought to exist as some form of interstellar molecule.

Absorption Wavelength

This graph shows absorption wavelength as a function of the number of carbon atoms in the silicon-terminated carbon chains SiC_(2n+1)H, for the extremely strong pi-pi electronic transitions. When the chain contains 13 or more carbon atoms - not significantly longer than carbon chains already known to exist in space - these strong transitions overlap with the spectral region occupied by the elusive diffuse interstellar bands.

Credit: D. Kokkin, ASU

Many astronomers hypothesize that these interstellar molecules are also responsible for an observed phenomenon on Earth known as the "diffuse interstellar bands," spectrographic proof that something out there in the universe is absorbing certain distinct colors of light from stars before it reaches the Earth. But since we don't know the exact chemical composition and atomic arrangements of these mysterious molecules, it remains unproven whether they are, in fact, responsible for the diffuse interstellar bands.

Now in a paper appearing this week in The Journal of Chemical Physics, from AIP Publishing, a group of scientists led by researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. has offered a tantalizing new possibility: these mysterious molecules may be silicon-capped hydrocarbons like SiC3H, SiC4H and SiC5H, and they present data and theoretical arguments to back that hypothesis.

At the same time, the group cautions that history has shown that while many possibilities have been proposed as the source of diffuse interstellar bands, none has been proven definitively.

"There have been a number of explanations over the years, and they cover the gamut," said Michael McCarthy a senior physicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who led the study.

Molecules in Space and How We Know They're There

Astronomers have long known that interstellar molecules containing carbon atoms exist and that by their nature they will absorb light shining on them from stars and other luminous bodies. Because of this, a number of scientists have previously proposed that some type of interstellar molecules are the source of diffuse interstellar bands -- the hundreds of dark absorption lines seen in color spectrograms taken from Earth.

In showing nothing, these dark bands reveal everything. The missing colors correspond to photons of given wavelengths that were absorbed as they travelled through the vast reaches of space before reaching us. More than that, if these photons were filtered by falling on space-based molecules, the wavelengths reveal the exact energies it took to excite the electronic structures of those absorbing molecules in a defined way.

Armed with that information, scientists here on Earth should be able to use spectroscopy to identify those interstellar molecules -- by demonstrating which molecules in the laboratory have the same absorptive "fingerprints." But despite decades of effort, the identity of the molecules that account for the diffuse interstellar bands remains a mystery. Nobody has been able to reproduce the exact same absorption spectra in laboratories here on Earth.

"Not a single one has been definitively assigned to a specific molecule," said Neil Reilly, a former postdoctoral fellow at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and a co-author of the new paper.

Now Reilly, McCarthy and their colleagues are pointing to an unusual set of molecules — silicon-terminated carbon chain radicals — as a possible source of these mysterious bands.

As they report in their new paper, the team first created silicon-containing carbon chains SiC3H, SiC4H and SiC5H in the laboratory using a jet-cooled silane-acetylene discharge. They then analyzed their spectra and carried out theoretical calculations to predict that longer chains in this family might account for some portion of the diffuse interstellar bands.

However, McCarthy cautioned that the work has not yet revealed the smoking gun source of the diffuse interstellar bands. In order to prove that these larger silicon capped hydrocarbon molecules are such a source, more work needs to be done in the laboratory to define the exact types of transitions these molecules undergo, and these would have to be directly related to astronomical observations. But the study provides a tantalizing possibility for finding the elusive source of some of the mystery absorption bands -- and it reveals more of the rich molecular diversity of space.

"The interstellar medium is a fascinating environment," McCarthy said. "Many of the things that are quite abundant there are really unknown on Earth."

###

The article, "Optical Spectra of the Silicon-Terminated Carbon Chain Radicals SiCnH (n=3,4,5)," is authored by D. L. Kokkin, N. J. Reilly, R. C. Fortenberry, T. D. Crawford and M. C. McCarthy. It will be published in The Journal of Chemical Physics on July 29, 2014. After that date, it can be accessed at: http://scitation.aip.org/content/aip/journal/jcp/141/4/10.1063/1.4883521

Authors of the paper are affiliated with Harvard University, Arizona State University, Virginia Tech, the University of Louisville and Georgia Southern University.

ABOUT THE JOURNAL

The Journal of Chemical Physics publishes concise and definitive reports of significant research in the methods and applications of chemical physics. See: http://jcp.aip.org

Jason Socrates Bardi | Eurek Alert!

Further reports about: Astrophysics Earth Harvard-Smithsonian Mysterious interstellar photons spectra wavelengths

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht New record in materials research: 1 terapascals in a laboratory
22.07.2016 | Universität Bayreuth

nachricht Mapping electromagnetic waveforms
22.07.2016 | Max-Planck-Institut für Quantenoptik

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Mapping electromagnetic waveforms

Munich Physicists have developed a novel electron microscope that can visualize electromagnetic fields oscillating at frequencies of billions of cycles per second.

Temporally varying electromagnetic fields are the driving force behind the whole of electronics. Their polarities can change at mind-bogglingly fast rates, and...

Im Focus: Continental tug-of-war - until the rope snaps

Breakup of continents with two speed: Continents initially stretch very slowly along the future splitting zone, but then move apart very quickly before the onset of rupture. The final speed can be up to 20 times faster than in the first, slow extension phase.phases

Present-day continents were shaped hundreds of millions of years ago as the supercontinent Pangaea broke apart. Derived from Pangaea’s main fragments Gondwana...

Im Focus: A Peek into the “Birthing Room” of Ribosomes

Scaffolding and specialised workers help with the delivery – Heidelberg biochemists gain new insights into biogenesis

A type of scaffolding on which specialised workers ply their trade helps in the manufacturing process of the two subunits from which the ribosome – the protein...

Im Focus: New protocol enables analysis of metabolic products from fixed tissues

Scientists at the Helmholtz Zentrum München have developed a new mass spectrometry imaging method which, for the first time, makes it possible to analyze hundreds of metabolites in fixed tissue samples. Their findings, published in the journal Nature Protocols, explain the new access to metabolic information, which will offer previously unexploited potential for tissue-based research and molecular diagnostics.

In biomedical research, working with tissue samples is indispensable because it permits insights into the biological reality of patients, for example, in...

Im Focus: Computer Simulation Renders Transient Chemical Structures Visible

Chemists at the University of Basel have succeeded in using computer simulations to elucidate transient structures in proteins. In the journal Angewandte Chemie, the researchers set out how computer simulations of details at the atomic level can be used to understand proteins’ modes of action.

Using computational chemistry, it is possible to characterize the motion of individual atoms of a molecule. Today, the latest simulation techniques allow...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

GROWING IN CITIES - Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Urban Gardening

15.07.2016 | Event News

SIGGRAPH2016 Computer Graphics Interactive Techniques, 24-28 July, Anaheim, California

15.07.2016 | Event News

Partner countries of FAIR accelerator meet in Darmstadt and approve developments

11.07.2016 | Event News

 
Latest News

Hey robot, shimmy like a centipede

22.07.2016 | Information Technology

New record in materials research: 1 terapascals in a laboratory

22.07.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

University of Graz researchers challenge 140-year-old paradigm of lichen symbiosis

22.07.2016 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>