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Astrophysics: Laboratory techniques enabling observations of ion chemistry in space

Spectroscopic methods provide new insights into the chemical development of the universe / Publication in ‘Nature Reviews Physics’

In a review article published in ‘Nature Reviews Physics’, scientists from the University of Cologne (Germany), Radboud University (Nijmegen, Netherlands) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – MIT (Cambridge, USA) describe advanced spectroscopic techniques that enabled the discovery of molecular ions relevant for astrophysics in the laboratory and in space. ‘The search for ions is considered particularly difficult. The techniques developed in Cologne contribute significantly to solving this problem’, said Professor Stephan Schlemmer (spokesperson of Collaborative Research Centre 956: Conditions and Impact of Star Formation) from the Institute of Astrophysics at the University of Cologne. ‘For example, new molecules are first discovered in our laboratory in a thimble-sized experiment, and then in space. Eventually we will be able to understand the important role ions play in the chemical evolution of the universe.’

Ions are charged atoms and molecules. They play a key role in the evolution of the space between stars where new stars and planets form. They are naturally very reactive and volatile, which makes them difficult to study. The scientists have now achieved fundamental breakthroughs – above all thanks to the experimental developments of Stephan Schlemmer’s research group. Specifically, the team simulated the extraordinary conditions of interstellar space, which is very cold ( 260 ℃) and almost empty (ultra-high vacuum), in ion traps. Using numerous examples, the authors describe how the combination of lab experiments, theoretical models, and astronomical observations has led to tremendous progress in their understanding of interstellar chemistry. One particularly impressive example is the unusual H2D+ molecule. Through its observation, made possible by the spectroscopic methods developed in Cologne, the age of a molecular cloud in which a star like our Sun is forming has been determined.

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