Stars R Us: the cosmic chemistry connection

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Chemistry


We are all made of star stuff! The atoms inside us were forged in the nuclear furnaces of stars. In stellar atmospheres, some elements form star-dust, which is blown out into space. In interstellar regions, chemical reactions between gases and dust turn the elements into increasingly complex molecules; over 150 have already been identified in space to date. These molecular cauldrons subsequently form the stellar nurseries from which new stars and planets form. The importance of molecules as progenitors for star formation, and for life, is not lost on astronomers. Chemists and Astronomers are now working together to understand how these 'space' molecules are formed, and the key role that they play in star formation. But how can we probe chemical reactions occurring literally light years from Earth? Our exhibit highlights the role of spectroscopy in unravelling these astrochemical reactions, detecting 'space molecules', and observing star and planet formation. Through tactile, eye-catching demonstrations, intuitive posters and videos, we make this interdisciplinary science accessible to the public. We will show how Astrochemistry is combining clues gleaned from the newest telescopes with sophisticated laboratory experiments and computer modelling, to specifically seek out the molecular markers of life. Our exhibit combines the expertise of Astrochemists from Strathclyde, UCL, Nottingham and the Open University, with the 'PUS' expertise of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. The science described in the exhibit is based on the astrochemistry/astrophysics research currently underway in the research groups of Brown, Fraser, McCoustra and Mason and on the astronomy research underway in the research group of Viti. Much of this research is currently funded by the EPSRC. This area of science ideally lends itself to public understanding activities, as it is an unusual circumstance in any culture that a person has not looked at the night sky and wondered at their significance and where we come from. Perhaps this is why the public holds astronomy in such high-regard, and are knowledgeable enough to be open to advanced concepts related to our understanding of the universe. This interest is clearly confirmed by the popularity of Amateur Astronomy Clubs UK-wide, the popularity of Astronomy GCSE, A-Level and degree studies, and the high viewing figures for (any) space-based programming on the BBC and Discovery Channel. By combining it with chemistry, astronomy becomes even more exciting. Astrochemistry offers us a unique route to engaging adults, schoolchildren and students in the importance of cross-disciplinary work and the role of chemistry in the interstellar medium. It is clearly an inspirational subject / aspects of star and planet formation appear in Standard grade and Higher syllabi in Scotland and the equivalent school qualifications in England. We are confident, therefore, that the work this exhibit will describe will be accessible to all children and adults, widening general scientific literacy and supporting lifelong learning.


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Description This award allowed us to build a very successful exhibit for the Royal Society Summer exhibition.
Exploitation Route The exhibit that was built has been used on many occasions for furthering public understanding of science and is still used even now (2014)
Sectors Education,Other

Description Public understanding of science
First Year Of Impact 2006
Sector Education
Impact Types Societal