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Astronomers map space’s icy wastes

Last Updated on Tuesday, 24 June 2014 16:04
Published on Tuesday, 24 June 2014 15:46

Using the AKARI orbiting observatory, astronomers from the Open University have made the first large-scale maps of icy material where stars are forming. In a challenge to conventional ideas about the formation of water in space, they find ice in regions with little dust or gas. Dr Helen Fraser, who led the new work, presented the results in her talk at the National Astronomy Meeting in Portsmouth this week.

fraser iceIn space, ice forms by building up a ‘frost-like’ layer on dust grains at a temperature of -263 degrees Celsius. The layer that results is a bit like the frost that forms on a car windscreen on a (somewhat less) cold morning on Earth. In this image the dust layer is represented by the blue coloured molecules at the bottom of the image. Water molecules have two hydrogen atoms (shown here in white) and one oxygen atom (shown here in red). Here the ice forms without structure (so-called amorphous ice), quite unlike the more familiar cubes of ice that you might find in a drink. This results in pores forming in the ice - the big 'hole' in the middle of this simulation. The 'hole' here is nano-sized - about a million times smaller in diameter than the diameter of a human hair. Gases get trapped in these pores, which can have a profound effect on temperatures and densities in regions of star formation. Credit: Helen Fraser / Open UniversityLaunched by the Japanese space agency JAXA in 2006, AKARI (meaning ‘light’ in Japanese) surveyed 90% of the sky at infrared wavelengths until it ceased operations in 2011. The OU team used data from the observatory to make maps of the icy material in 28 star-forming regions, covering sections of the sky 10 arc minutes by 10 arc minutes (1 arc minute is 1/60th of a degree).

In the regions covered in the survey, temperatures are very cold (-263 degrees Celsius and 10 degrees above absolute zero) and pressures are low, with only a few hundreds to a few thousands of molecules in each cubic centimetre of space. Under these conditions, atoms and molecules of gas collide with the dust that is found there and form layers of 'frost' on the dust surfaces. These nano-scale icy dust grains are the chemical factories of star-formation, where successively more complex chemistry occurs. This in turn seeds the pre-biotic organic molecules that astronomers search for in the ‘habitable zones’ (where temperatures are right for water to be a liquid) around newly forming stars that may be inextricably linked to the origins of life.

The new AKARI maps are the first of their kind and in contrast to the prevailing model, suggest that ice is found in regions without much dust or gas. If ice can even form in these zones, it can quickly suck up or ‘sorb’ nearby gases, in the process changing local conditions, for example the amount of material available to form new stars and planets.

Dr Fraser sees this as a surprising discovery and one that could change our model for the formation of stars and planets.

She comments: “Until this research we never previously had a view of the cold solid-state universe, the icy freezers from which stars and planets ultimately form. Given that the results in our own local galaxy are so surprising, the question remains what other galaxies look like when we map their ice features.”

Telescopes due to start operations in the 2020s, the James Webb Space Telescope and the European Extremely Large Telescope, will help researchers answer that question.

Dr Fraser continues: “The coming decade could be astounding. We could be able to apply the same technique to nearby galaxies and see if the nano-fabrication factories that make organic matter work in the same way across the different epochs of the history of the cosmos.”

 

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Science contact

Helen Fraser
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Images and captions

An image from a computer simulation of amorphous water ice
In space, ice forms by building up a ‘frost-like’ layer on dust grains at a temperature of -263 degrees Celsius. The layer that results is a bit like the frost that forms on a car windscreen on a (somewhat less) cold morning on Earth. In this image the dust layer is represented by the blue coloured molecules at the bottom of the image. Water molecules have two hydrogen atoms (shown here in white) and one oxygen atom (shown here in red). Here the ice forms without structure (so-called amorphous ice), quite unlike the more familiar cubes of ice that you might find in a drink. This results in pores forming in the ice - the big 'hole' in the middle of this simulation. The 'hole' here is nano-sized - about a million times smaller in diameter than the diameter of a human hair. Gases get trapped in these pores, which can have a profound effect on temperatures and densities in regions of star formation. Credit: Helen Fraser / Open University

An image from the Infrared Red Astronomy Satellite (IRAS) of the cloud of gas and dust around the star Lambda Orionis
This hot ‘O’-type star is losing copious amounts of material in a ‘stellar wind’ and carving out a void in the cloud. The black box marks the region B35a, a star-forming region blown into a point by the wind, where Dr Fraser searched for icy material. Credit: IRAS

A map of water ice in B35a, made using the AKARI satellite Infrared Camera (IRC) Near-Infrared Prism Spectroscopy mode (NP)
Brighter regions have the highest concentrations of water ice and black regions the lowest. The ‘contours’ indicate where the concentration of dust peaks (derived from JCMT HARP B and IRAM HERA observations of emitting interstellar gas). Distances are indicated in light years (LY – 1 light year is roughly 10 million million km) and astronomical units (AU – the mean distance from the Earth to the Sun of about 150 million km). Credit: Helen Fraser / Open University

A map of B35a showing the distribution of water ice and carbon monoxide (CO), with the latter indicating where gas is present
The map is constructed from observations with JCMT HARP B and IRAM HERA observations (gas) and the AKARI satellite Infrared Camera (IRC) Near-Infrared Prism Spectroscopy mode (NP) (dust). Here the lightest regions correspond to the highest concentrations of ice and the darkest to where no ice is present. The overlaid contours show CO, where yellow / white lines mark where the most gas is found and redder lines mark where somewhat less CO is present. Where there are no lines no CO was found at all. The edge of B35a is the red line running from top to bottom on the right hand side of the image. The image shows that sometimes ice is observed where there is little gas and dust, challenging our understanding of chemical evolution of star forming regions. Credit: Helen Fraser  / Open University

 

Notes for editors

The RAS National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2014) will bring together more than 600 astronomers, space scientists and solar physicists for a conference running from 23 to 26 June in Portsmouth. NAM 2014, the largest regular professional astronomy event in the UK, will be held in conjunction with the UK Solar Physics (UKSP), Magnetosphere Ionosphere Solar-Terrestrial physics (MIST) and UK Cosmology (UKCosmo) meetings. The conference is principally sponsored by the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the University of Portsmouth. Meeting arrangements and a full and up to date schedule of the scientific programme can be found on the official website and via Twitter.

The University of Portsmouth is a top-ranking university in a student-friendly waterfront city. It's in the top 50 universities in the UK, in The Guardian University Guide League Table 2014 and is ranked in the top 400 universities in the world, in the most recent Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2013. Research at the University of Portsmouth is varied and wide ranging, from pure science – such as the evolution of galaxies and the study of stem cells – to the most technologically applied subjects – such as computer games design. Our researchers collaborate with colleagues worldwide, and with the public, to develop new insights and make a difference to people's lives. Follow the University of Portsmouth on Twitter.

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organises scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3800 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others. Follow the RAS on Twitter.

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