Carbon grains around evolved stars

The Nanocosmos team published in October 21, 2019, at Nature Astronomy, 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.

Nick Cox at The Physics of Evolved Stars (POE2015) conference

nanocosmos_general_poster_final

The Nanocosmos project was presented at The Physics of Evolved Stars (POE2015) conference by Nanocosmos astronomer Dr. Nick Cox on behalf of the three PIs. This international meeting, held from 8-12 June in Nice, France, was organised to honour Dr. Olivier Chesneau (Observatoire de Nice) who passed away in 2014. Presentations at the meeting covered the broad range of scientific interests of Olivier: from AGB stars, Planetary Nebulae, R CrB stars, Novae, Symbiotic systems, and many more. Many presentations at this meeting centred on understanding the formation and presence of dust and molecules in circumstellar environments of both low- and high-mass evolved stellar systems, topics of particular interest to Nanocosmos researchers.

High-Resolution Submillimeter Spectroscopy of the Interstellar Medium and Star Forming Regions — From Herschel to ALMA and Beyond (Zakopane, Poland, May 12 – 16, 2015)

copyright © : Subaru Telescope, National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ)
copyright © : Subaru Telescope, National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ)

Two NANOCOSMOS members, Prof. José Cernicharo and Dr. Javier R. Goicoechea gave two invited talks at this workshop in Poland. José Cernicharo showed the NANOCOSMOS latests results from the ALMA observations of the archetypical AGB carbon-star IRC+10216. The NANOCOSMOS team has published 4 articles (see publications) on these results (including IRAM observations) and new exciting results are expected for the coming months. Javier R. Goicoechea talked about the velocity-resolved [CII] emission and [CII]/FIR mapping along Orion. The [CII] 158μm fine structure line is arising in gas irradiated by UV-photons from the Trapezium cluster and contributes significantly to the cooling of the cold neutral medium. These observations in combination with Far-Infrared photometric images of the dust emission and maps of the H41α hydrogen recombination and CO provide an unprecedented close view (0,16 light-years in resolution) of the Orion Cloud surrounding the Trapezium. Stay tuned¡

NANOCOSMOS at the recent ALMA / Herschel Archival Workshop (Garching, Germany)

alma_herschel_low_resFour NANOCOSMOS researchers gave their presentations at the ALMA/Herschel Archival Workshop held in Garching (Germany) at the ESO headquarters in April 15 -17, 2015. José Cernicharo (NANOCOSMOS Corresponding P.I.) talked about the synergies between the ALMA high resolution observations in the innermost zones of star-forming regions, AGB, post-AGBs stars and extragalactic objects and those of Herschel´s archive submillimeter and far-IR observations. Our postdoctoral researchers, Marcelino Agúndez, Guillermo Quintana-Lacaci and Belén Tercero talked about the following topics: Continue reading →