Carbon grains around evolved stars

The Nanocosmos team published today in the journal 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.

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).