New theoretical grounds in Astrochemistry

For the first time, NANOCOSMOS has attempted to reproduce the complex molecular chemistry and stardust formation in circumstellar envelopes (CSEs) of asymptotic giant branch (AGB) stars and interstellar environments under accurate and realistic laboratory conditions. These conditions differ from previous studies and techniques to produce stardust analogs, mostly based on laser ablation and pyrolysis, flames, and other far related conditions from those in the CSEs of AGB stars.

Hence, we have used our innovative setups at CSIC and CNRS, e.g. Stardust, AROMA, PIRENEA 2 and cold plasma reactors, to study the processes that lead to carbon dust formation including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and fullerenes. We have studied the chemistry of atomic silicon and the formation of silicate dust grains. We have also investigated the aromatic content of two different meteorites, Murchison and Almahata Sitta.

In summary, our synergetic results provide significant and surprising breakthroughs in our current understanding of the chemical processes at play in CSEs and meteoritic samples. These new and open theoretical grounds have also important implications in current chemical models. These NANOCOSMOS breakthroughs are the following:

  • Aliphatic nature of carbonaceous cosmic dust analogs. Our realistic laboratory conditions do not lead to the efficient formation of aromatic molecules (PAHs and fullerenes) in the gas phase, contrary to all previous studies (Stardust, AROMA).
  • Efficient mechanism for the formation of silane and disilane in the gas phase from Si, H, and H2 in the innermost regions of the CSEs around AGB stars (Stardust).
  • Further evidence for the role of metal (iron) seeds to increase not only the formation of metal clusters but also catalyzed hydrocarbon growth in the CSEs of AGB stars (Cold plasma reactors, AROMA, PIRENEA 2 and ESPOIRS).

  • First firm detection of fullerenes in meteorites (Almahata Sitta) and co-existence of carbon clusters along with PAHs in this meteorite (AROMA).


    NANOCOSMOS has successfully achieved significative breakthroughs to address the fundamental problem of cosmic dust formation. We have designed and implemented innovative experimental set-ups and analytical tools well beyond the state-of-the-art. Next we describe the design, construction, implementation and commissioning of these innovations in the dedicated links:

    NANOCOSMOS is providing new exciting experimental results in different research fields and challenging theoretical grounds. This menu is devoted to the description and analysis of Outstanding Results and potential new challenges.

    Carbon grains around evolved stars

    The Nanocosmos team published in October 21, 2019, at Nature Astronomy (available free at Europe PubMed Central), the results of a set of laboratory experiments showing that gas-phase chemistry, under conditions similar to those of a red giant star environment, can produce very efficiently small amorphous carbon grains and carbon chains similar to those found in oil.

    Stardust, an ultra-high vacuum machine built in the ERC Nanocosmos project (a Synergy project funded by the European Research Council), was specifically conceived to simulate, with a high level of control, the complex conditions of stardust formation and processing in the environment of evolved stars. In addition, the AROMA setup was built to analyse the molecular content of the samples synthesized by Stardust.

    In the words of José Ángel Martín-Gago (Institute of Materials Science of Madrid, ICMM-CSIC, Spain), responsible for the Stardust instrument, “Mimicking the conditions of the envelope of an evolved star, laboratory experiments allow scientists to follow, step by step, the formation process of dust grains, from atoms to simple molecules and their growth to more complex clusters of molecules.”

    For José Cernicharo (Institute of Fundamental Physics, IFF-CSIC, Spain), lead co-investigator of the project together with Martín-Gago and Christine Joblin (Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planétologie, IRAP-CNRS, France), “That process is important because those grains of dust, which emerge from the final stages of the evolution of medium-sized stars like our Sun will provide the fundamental pieces needed for the birth of the planets and the main ingredients for the onset of life once injected into the interstellar medium.”

    This is why it is essential to develop experiments combining laboratory astrophysics, surface science and astronomical observations to unveil the chemical routes that operate in the inner layers of the envelope of evolved stars.

    The results obtained show the formation of amorphous carbon nanograins and aliphatic carbon clusters with traces of aromatic species and no fullerenes. This shows that the latter species cannot form effectively by gas-phase condensation at these temperatures in the zone of the evolved star where the dust is formed, a region that extends up to a few stellar radii.

    Chemical complexity

    Carbon dust analogues were produced in Stardust and analysed with several characterization techniques including Scanning Tunneling Microscopy and mass spectrometry with the AROMA setup. To produce them only gas carbon atoms and molecular hydrogen were used in a ratio close to that in the atmospheres of AGB stars.

    The results showed two types of products: amorphous carbonaceous nanograins – the most abundant, considered to be the main component of carbonaceous star dust – and aliphatic carbon groups. But almost no aromatic molecules were found in the analysis.

    According to Joblin, “Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are widespread in massive star-forming regions and in carbon-rich protoplanetary and planetary nebulae. Large carbonaceous molecules like buckminsterfullerene C60 have also been detected in some of these environments. But it seems that they need different conditions to be formed”.

    One possible pathway could be through thermal processing of aliphatic material on the surface of dust, which could take place as a result of the significant rise in the temperature of nanograins that occurs in highly UV-irradiated environments. Those results give us new insights into the chemistry of carbonaceous stardust seed formation and foster new observations in order to constrain the physical and chemical conditions in the inner shells of the envelops of evolved stars.

    About the ERC

    The European Research Council, set up by the European Union in 2007, is the premier European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. Every year it selects and funds the very best, creative researchers of any nationality and age to run projects based in Europe. The ERC has three grant schemes for individual principal investigators – Starting Grants, Consolidator Grants, and Advanced Grants – and Synergy Grants for small groups of excellent researchers.

    To date, the ERC has funded more than 9,000 top researchers at various stages of their careers, and over 50,000 postdoctoral fellows, PhD students and other staff working in their research teams. The ERC strives to attract top researchers from anywhere in the world to come to Europe.

    The ERC is led by an independent governing body, the Scientific Council. The ERC current President is Professor Jean-Pierre Bourguignon. The ERC has an annual budget of €2 billion for the year 2019. The overall ERC budget from 2014 to 2020 is more than €13 billion, as part of the Horizon 2020 programme, for which European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science Carlos Moedas is currently responsible.

    Elegant and fast: the GACELA is running

    The Gas Cell chamber

    On June 7, 2019, a first paper on the GACELA (GAs CEll for Laboratory Astrophysics) experimental set-up is out at the “Astronomy & Astrophysics” journal (A&A, volume 626, A34, 2019).

    More than 3 years have elapsed since the first designs were envisaged for this set-up. Finally, at the end of 2017, the chamber (see figure above) was delivered and successfully tested against leaks. On the other hand, the GACELA broad-band radio receivers (Q and W bands, 31.5–50 and 72–116.5 GHz, respectively) were successfully commissioned in the second semester of 2017 and interfaced with the GACELA set-up in February 2018. Several experimental runs were performed, showing high quality signal-to-noise ratio spectra of molecular species (CH3CN, CH3OH, CH4/N2, CH4/N2/CH3CN, etc).

    As stated by the authors, GACELA has achieved an important milestone. It is the first time that we can observe the thermal emission of molecules with an instantaneous band width of 20 GHz in Q band and 3 × 20 GHz in W band for Laboratory Astrophysics. These rotational spectroscopy measurements are complemented by mass spectrometry and optical spectroscopy.

    In summary, NANOCOSMOS has developed an elegant and fast-responding set-up, the GACELA, to provide high-resolution and high-sensitivity spectra of molecular species produced in cold plasmas or UV experiments.

    More information:

    This research was presented in the paper “Broad-band high-resolution rotational spectroscopy for laboratory astrophysics“, published in Astronomy and Astrophysics 626, A34 (29pp), 2019 June 7. The authors are: José Cernicharo (Instituto de Física Fundamental, IFF-CSIC), Juan D. Gallego (Centro de Desarrollos Tecnológicos, Observatorio de Yebes, IGN), José A. López-Pérez (CDT, OY, IGN), Félix Tercero (CDT, OY, IGN), Isabel Tanarro (Instituto de Estructura de la Materia, IEM-CSIC), Francisco Beltrán (CDT, OY, IGN), Pablo de Vicente (CDT, OY, IGN), Koen Lauwaet (Instituto de Ciencia de Materiales de Madrid, ICMM-CSIC & IMDEA Nanociencia), Belén Alemán (ICMM-CSIC & IMDEA Materiales), Elena Moreno (IFF-CSIC), Víctor J. Herrero (IEM-CSIC), José L. Doménech (IEM-CSIC), Sandra I. Ramírez (Centro de Investigaciones Químicas, UAEM, Mexico), Celina Bermúdez (IFF-CSIC), Ramón J. Peláez (IEM-CSIC), María Patino-Esteban (CDT, OY, IGN), Isaac López-Fernández (CDT, OY, IGN), Sonia García-Álvaro (CDT, OY, IGN), Pablo García-Carreño (CDT, OY, IGN), Carlos Cabezas (IFF-CSIC), Inmaculada Malo (CDT, OY, IGN), Ricardo Amils (CDT, OY, IGN), Jesús Sobrado (Centro de Astrobiología, INTA-CSIC), Carmen Díez-González (CDT, OY, IGN), José M. Hernández (IFF-CSIC/CDT, OY, IGN), Belén Tercero (CDT, OY, IGN), Gonzalo Santoro (ICMM-CSIC), Lidia Martínez (ICMM-CSIC), Marcelo Castellanos (IFF-CSIC), Beatriz Vaquero-Jiménez (CDT, OY, IGN), Juan R. Pardo (IFF-CSIC), Laura Barbas (CDT, OY, IGN), José A. López-Fernández (CDT, OY, IGN), Beatriz Aja (Universidad de Cantabria), Arnulf Leuther (Fraunhofer Institut fur Angewandte Festkorperphysik, Germany), José A. Martín-Gago (ICMM-CSIC).

    The GACELA experimental set-up is located at the Centro de Desarrollos Tecnológicos, Observatorio de Yebes, thanks to a bilateral agreement between CSIC and IGN for the development of the NANOCOSMOS project.

    AROMA Setup First Results

    The AROMA Setup

    In the framework of the Nanocosmos ERC synergy project, a new analytical experimental setup called AROMA (Astrochemistry Research of Organics with Molecular Analyzer) was developed. The main purpose of this setup is to study and identify, with micro-scale resolution, the molecular content of cosmic dust analogues, including the stardust analogues that will be produced in the Nanocosmos Stardust machine in Madrid. AROMA combines laser desorption/ionization (LDI) techniques with a linear ion trap coupled to an orthogonal time of flight mass spectrometer (LQIT-oTOF). A first paper “Identification of PAH Isomeric Structure in Cosmic Dust Analogues: the AROMA setup” has just been published in The Astrophysical Journal. This is the first time that two-step LDI is coupled to a linear ion trap with MS/MS capabilities. In MS/MS experiments ions are first stored in a trap and then are fragmented under the action of photon or collision activation. The resulting fragments are then detected by mass spectrometry providing information on the molecular structure of the parent species.

    The article presents the performances of AROMA with its ability to detect with very high sensitivity aromatic species in complex materials of astrophysical interest and characterize their structures. A two-step LDI technique was used, in which desorption and ionization are achieved using two different lasers which are separated in time and space. The tests performed with pure polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) samples have shown a limit of detection of 100 femto-grams, which corresponds to 2×108 molecules in the case of coronene (C24H12). We detected a mixture of PAH small and medium-sized PAHs in the Murchison meteorite that contains a complex mixture of extraterrestrial organic compounds. In addition, collision induced dissociation experiments were performed on selected species detected in Murchison, which led to the first firm identification of pyrene (C16H10) and its methylated derivatives in this sample.

    AROMA setup, being highly sensitive, selective, spatially resolved, and owing the MS/MS capabilities enables unique chemical characterization of aromatic species in cosmic dust analogues and extraterrestrial samples. Changing the ionization source will enlarge the scope of investigated chemical species. In the future, it will be used to analyze samples from the Stardust machine, other laboratory analogues and cosmic materials such as meteorites, and interplanetary dust particles. Currently, we are developing an imaging source that will allow us to analyze samples using LDI with micrometer spatial resolution.

    More information:

    This research was presented in the paper “Identification of PAH Isomeric Structure in Cosmic Dust Analogs: The AROMA Setup“, published in the Astrophysical Journal (APJ), 843:34 (8pp), 2017 July 1.  The authors are Hassan Sabbah (Université de Toulouse, UPS-OMP, Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planétologie (IRAP); CNRS, IRAP; LCAR, Université de Toulouse, UPS-IRSAMC, CNRS, France), Anthony Bonnamy (Université de Toulouse, UPS-OMP, IRAP; CNRS, IRAP, France), Dimitris Papanastasiou (Fasmatech Science + Technology, Greece), Jose Cernicharo (Instituto de Ciencia de Materiales de Madrid (ICMM), CSIC, Spain), Jose-Angel Martín-Gago (ICMM-CSIC, Spain), and Christine Joblin (Université de Toulouse, UPS-OMP, IRAP; CNRS, IRAP, France).

    Prof. Christine Joblin awarded the Legion of Honour

    Christine Joblin, one of the NANOCOSMOS project PIs, has been awarded chevalier of the National Order of the Legion of Honour for her public service and professional activities with eminent merits in scientific research both at the national and international levels. cjoblin_legion_honourChristine Joblin is a research director at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in l’Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planétologie (IRAP, Université Toulouse 3).

    You can read the full press release (in French).

    Congrats Christine!!!

    ECLA 2016 – webpage open


    The second announcement of the European Conference on Laboratory Astrophysics – “Gas on the Rocks” – ECLA 2016 has been issued today.  This conference will be held at the CSIC headquarters (Madrid, Spain) in November 21 – 25, 2016. The webpage is open with all the relevant information.

    More than 30 invited researchers will address new insights on the following science topics:

    • Comets, asteroids, meteorites and the primitive Solar System nebula: formation and evolution
    • Protoplanetary disks and planet formation
    • Planet, Moon, and exoplanet surfaces and atmospheres
    • The signatures of the evolving interstellar medium
    • Dense Clouds: the gas-ice interface and molecular complexity
    • Chemical fingerprints of star formation
    • The late stages of star evolution: dust formation
    • Supernovae and shocks: high-energy processing of matter

    NANOCOSMOS will organize the ECLA2016 – Gas on the Rocks conference


    The European Conference on Laboratory Astrophysics – Gas on the Rocks (ECLA2016) will be held at the CSIC headquarters in Madrid on November 21 – 25, 2016.

    The conference will address the state of the art in laboratory astrophysics within the context of new astrophysical data and to improve communication and collaboration between astrophysicists, physicists and (geo) chemists. Hence, the conference structure will consist of invited talks presenting topics in astrophysics and planetary science and related laboratory astrophysics activities. Contributing talks will be selected to complement the topics from the astrophysical, laboratory, and theoretical/modeling points of view.

    More info here


    First light of the AROMA experimental set-up in Toulouse

    The AROMA (Astrochemical Research of Organics using Molecular Analyzer) experimental set-up has seen the first light by showing nice peaks of C60 and its 13C isomers in Toulouse. The AROMA main purpose is to analyze the molecular content of cosmic dust particles, more specifically stardust analogues that will be produced in the Nanocosmos Stardust machine in Madrid.

    See the NANOCOSMOS video on the start of the AROMA experimental set-up.

    The AROMA experimental set-upThe central part of AROMA arrived from Greece at the University Toulouse III – Paul Sabatier (France) on September 18th 2015. The construction was performed by Fasmatech, a young Greek company, following requirements from the IRAP scientific team. It consists of a linear ion trap combined with a high-resolution time of flight mass spectrometer. After months of development, the setup was delivered on time in Toulouse at the laboratory LCAR. Only two days later, a first light could be obtained. The laser desorption ionization of fullerene showed nice peaks of C60 and its 13C isomers. Further optimization of the signal was performed on the next days and this will continue in the coming weeks. The IRAP team is also working on combining the two steps laser desorption laser ionization source to the instrument. The objective is to analyze the molecular organic phase at a micron scale.

    NANOCOSMOS astronomers will map Orion with SOFIA

    A legacy program to map the far-IR fine structure line of C+ at 158 microns with the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) has been recently awarded to a small international team led by Prof. Tielens (Leiden Observatory, The Netherlands) and including 3 members of the NANOCOSMOS project, Dr. J. R. Goicoechea (ICMM-CSIC), Dr. O. Berné (IRAP, CNRS) and Prof. J. Cernicharo (ICMM-CSIC). The observing time to map the Orion molecular cloud will be more than 50 hours, which means several flights on board SOFIA!!

    [CII] 158μm emission image taken by Herschel with the locations of famous regions in the cloud identified (Goicoechea et al. 2015)
    [CII] 158μm emission image taken by Herschel with the locations of famous regions in the cloud identified (Goicoechea et al. 2015). SOFIA will map an area 20 times larger than the region covered by Herschel.

    The ionized carbon emission dominates the gas cooling of the low density interstellar medium and it is the brightest emission line in the IR spectrum of galaxies. In the next 2 years, astronomers will use the instrument upGREAT flying on board SOFIA to map an area of more than 20 times the central region of Orion recently observed with the Herschel Space Telescope (Goicoechea et al. 2015, ApJ, 812, 75, see the publications section). This project will allow to uniquely determine the use of the C+ line as a star formation rate indicator, derive the amount of molecular cloud mass not measured by CO (so-called “CO-dark” gas), and semi-empirically determine the photo-electric heating efficiency on Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) and interstellar dust grains.

    The Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) is a joint project between NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR) consisting of a custom-modified Boeing 747SP aircraft with an effective aperture of 2.5 m mounted in an open cavity towards the tail of the aircraft.

    SOFIA air-to-air over the Sierra Nevada Mountains (Credit: NASA, USRA (Universities Space Research Association), and L-3 Communications Integrated Systems/Jim Ross)
    SOFIA air-to-air over the Sierra Nevada Mountains (Credit: NASA, USRA (Universities Space Research Association), and L-3 Communications Integrated Systems/Jim Ross)