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Organic conundrum in Large Magellanic Cloud

Last Updated on Monday, 23 June 2014 11:14
Published on Saturday, 21 June 2014 13:16

MatsuuraSpitzer image of the Large Magellanic Cloud. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScIA group of organic chemicals that are considered carcinogens and pollutants today on Earth, but are also thought to be the building blocks for the origins of life, may hold clues to how carbon-rich chemicals created in stars are processed and recycled in space.

Scientists have studied how polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are created in an aging population of stars in the Milky Way’s satellite galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud. They have found that the types of PAH found in the atmospheres of these stars are much more varied than the PAHs observed in our own galaxy. The results will be presented by Dr Mikako Matsuura of UCL on Monday 23 June at the National Astronomy Meeting in Portsmouth.

"We were surprised because previous measurements of PAHs in interstellar dust in the Large Magellanic Cloud were very similar to those in the Milky Way," said Matsuura. "Our studies suggest these organic molecules are processed and change their composition soon after they are ejected by dying stars to fill the matter within the galaxy. Dying stars in the neighbouring galaxy are richer in carbon than the Milky Way’s stars, so are more likely to trigger these wide varieties of organic compounds."

Matsuura and an international team observed 24 carefully selected stars with the Spitzer Space Telescope and analysed the light to find features linked to PAHs.  Stars are powered by nuclear fusion in their cores, converting hydrogen to helium. Towards the end of their life, low-mass stars like the Sun consume all their hydrogen in the stellar core and start to convert helium to oxygen and carbon.  Eventually, they run out of fuel and expel their outer layers, creating a nebula around a central white dwarf. The gas and molecules from this nebula are mixed over time into the interstellar medium. The team focused their study on stars that appeared to be in the process of fusing carbon.

"We think that, as the central star evolves, the increasingly energetic radiation effects the compositions of the PAHs, leading to more varieties. However, once the PAHs are mixed into the Interstellar medium, this variability decreases," said Matsuura. "One possibility for this contrast is that ultraviolet radiation might change the profiles of the PAHs. Another is that PAHs are re-processed further in the Interstellar Medium, changing their composition."



Dr Thomas Lloyd Evans, one of the key co-authors of this work, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly on 12th June.  He worked at the South African Astronomical Observatory for long time, and kept active in science at St Andrews after retirement. For this press-release study, he worked on optical spectral classification, which is key to understanding how the evolutionary phase of stars impacts on the variation of PAHs. Mikako Matsuura and the rest of the team will miss him.


Media contacts

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Dr Robert Massey
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Science contact

Dr Mikako Matsuura
Department of Physics and Astronomy
University College London
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Image and caption
Spitzer space telescope image of the Large Magellanic Cloud. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI


Further information

JPL manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Spacecraft operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.


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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