|#1 – BREAKTHROUGHS in CARBON CHEMISTRY in CIRCUMSTELLAR ENVELOPES (CSEs)|
Breakthroughs in our current understanding on the formation of carbonaceous dust and complex molecules in the circumstellar envelopes (CSEs) of AGB stars and the interstellar medium (ISM).
Production and analysis of carbon dust seeds in conditions resembling those in the dust formation zones of CSEs contrasting to all previous experiments in the field.
|Innovative experimental methodology|
1 – Production of carbon dust seeds at the Stardust Machine using exclusively gas-phase carbon atoms and molecular hydrogen in a ratio close to that in the atmospheres of AGB stars under ultra-high vacuum (UHV) conditions.
2 – Expansion of the previous study to investigate the interaction of atomic carbon and diatomic carbon with acetylene.
3 – First use of the sputtering gas aggregation source (SGAS) in Laboratory Astrophysics to generate small clusters of nanometre-sized particles by gas-phase aggregation of individual atoms in a weakly ionized environment, thus resembling what happens in the dust formation zones of CSEs.
4 – Full experimental analysis: atomic force microscopy (AFM), scanning tunnel microscopy (STM), transmission electron microscopy (TEM), optical emission spectroscopy (OES), infrared spectroscopy in transmission geometry and quadrupole mass spectrometry (QMS) at the Stardust Machine. Ex-situ laser desorption ionization/mass spectrometry (LDI-MS) in the AROMA machine that resembles the reactions on the surfaces of dust grains.
1) From experiment 1. Efficient production of carbonaceous nanometre-sized grains, nanometer-sized small amorphous carbon clusters, acetylene (C2H2), along with fragments of ethylene (C2H4), ethane (C2H6) and larger aliphatic molecules, saturated aliphatic species and marginal detection of aromatic species (benzene, small PAHs like naphthalene) and no fullerenes. We reproduce the abundances of the acetylene and ethylene found in CSEs around AGB stars.
2) From experiment 2. Production of a non-negligible amount of pure and hydrogenated carbon clusters as well as aromatics with aliphatic substitutions, both being a direct consequence of the addition of atomic carbon
Our experiments, that closely resemble the chemistry involved in the CSEs, do not favour the formation of aromatic species (PAHs and fullerenes), which can account for up to 18% of the total carbon species in the interstellar medium. We also show that aromatics with aliphatic substitutions as well as pure and hydrogenated carbon clusters can be produced as a direct consequence of the addition of atomic carbon.
1) SGAS, a technique not previously used in laboratory astrophysics, can be a very valuable tool to gain information on the chemistry operating in CSEs and the interstellar medium.
2) PAHs might not be efficiently formed during gas-phase growth in CSEs.
3) New theoretical plausible scenario: Thermal processing of aliphatic species deposited on dust grains in CSEs could lead to the formation of larger molecules or aromatic species. Such a temperature rise happens in later stages of stellar evolution (protoplanetary nebula PPNe) when the star emits UV radiation that leads to photo-processing of the carbon dust. Indeed, aromatic infrared bands, the signature for PAHs, are not convincingly detected in AGBs, but are observed at these later stages.
4) Unveiling of chemical routes: these results could unveil chemical routes leading to the formation of acetylene-based molecular species in the external layers of AGB stars and in PPNe, and to foster the search for alkyl-substituted aromatics in these environments.
– Prevalence of non-aromatic carbonaceous molecules in the inner regions of circumstellar envelopes (L. Martínez et al., Nature Astronomy, volume 4, pages 97–105, 2020), DOI link. EPMC link.
– A new take on circumstellar carbon chemistry (M. Gatchell, News and Views, Nature Astronomy, volume 4, pages 21 – 22, 2020), share link).
– The Chemistry of Cosmic Dust Analogs from C, C2, and C2H2 in C-rich Circumstellar Envelopes (G. Santoro et al., The Astrophysical Journal, volume 895, number 2, 2020). DOI link. EPMC link.
Image of the Heiles Cloud 2 as part of the massive Taurus Molecular Cloud (TMC). The magnifying glass shows the region, called TMC-1, where our line survey observations were made. Image captured at Grand Mesa Observatory in Colorado (USA). Image credit and copyright Terry Hancock and Tom Masterson.
First detection of a pure PAH (indene c-C9H8) in an unexpected place!
Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) are organic compounds formed by rings. Their bad reputation on Earth is due to their toxicity, as they are mostly the result of oil and coal combustion. However, in space they have another role that, despite waiting for confirmation, may be related even to the origin of life.
In the interstellar medium observations, there are infrared bands that, until now, were unidentified. The hypothesis (for more than 40 years) was that these bands were probably PAHs, but final confirmation was lacking.
The first milestone of this work is the confirmation, for the first time, of the presence of a pure PAH (indene) in the interstellar medium. The second milestone is that we have confirmed the discovery in an unexpected place: a cold dark cloud called TMC-I.
The TMC-1 cold dark cloud
It was originally thought that PAHs could form in circumstellar envelopes around evolved stars. These stars are in the final stages of their lives and expel much of their matter into the interstellar medium. In fact, twenty years ago benzene, (an aromatic ring present in many PAHs) was first detected in the hot and ultraviolet light illuminated regions around an evolved star. This made astronomers think that the formation of PAHs requires high temperatures and ultraviolet radiation. Therefore, the presence of PAHs in the interstellar medium would have an exogenous origin. That is, PAHs would form in circumstellar envelopes and would later be dragged into the interstellar medium by stellar winds.
However, the first detection has been carried out in an unexpected environment: the cold pre-stellar core TMC-1 in the Taurus Molecular Cloud complex, which is well protected from ultraviolet radiation. In this environment, in addition to the indene (c-C9H8), the presence of ethynyl cyclopropenylidene (c-C3HCCH) and cyclopentadiene (c-C5H6) has been detected. It should be noted that cyclopentadiene and indene, molecules formed by rings of five and six carbon atoms, are exceptionally abundant despite their large size.
With these observations, it is demonstrated not only the unambiguous presence of PAHs in the interstellar medium, but also that they are formed in situ and from less complex molecules. They are not dragged from other environments (e.g. on the surface of dust grains), but are formed according to what is called a bottom-up formation mechanism, that is, from smaller molecules that join in the gas phase.
Although some theories relate PAHs to the origin of life, more studies are still needed to confirm the role they could have played in the formation of nucleobases, which are part of the RNA. While astronomers gather more data that may or may not confirm this hypothesis, this NANOCOSMOS-ERC discovery is a major breakthrough in our current understanding to explain the formation mechanisms of complex molecules, which remain, for the most part, a mystery.
The Yebes 40m radio telescope
The TMC-1 observations have been carried out with the 40m radio telescope at Yebes Observatory (IGN, the Spanish National Geographic Institute). This was possible thanks to the Nanocosmos new receivers, built within the Nanocosmos-ERC project, funded by the European Research Council. Since they were installed, these high-sensitivity new receivers are providing valuable new information on the interstellar medium.
Pure hydrocarbon cycles in TMC-1: Discovery of ethynyl cyclopropenylidene, cyclopentadiene and indene (Astronomy & Astrophysics, May 2021, DOI: 10.1051/0004-6361/202141156). Authors: J. Cernicharo, M. Agúndez, C. Cabezas, B. Tercero, N. Marcelino, J. R. Pardo, & P. de Vicente.
AstroPAH: A Newsletter on Astronomical PAHs (Leiden University, the Netherlands), issue 78, May 21, 2021. A new golden age era for Astrochemistry: Discovering PAHs with millikelvin sensitive radio astronomical molecular line surveys (by Prof. José Cernicharo, on behalf of the NANOCOSMOS ERC team).
CSIC press release: Hallados hidrocarburos policíclicos aromáticos en el medio interestelar
IGN press release: Hidrocarburos policíclicos aromáticos en el medio interestelar
El Mundo newspaper (May 22, 2021): ¿Por qué es importante el indeno hallado en el espacio por astrónomos españoles? (by Dr. Rafael Bachiller, director of the Observatorio Astronómico Nacional, IGN, Madrid).
The NANOCOSMOS team reports the first time detection of the simplest polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) carrying a five-membered ring—indene (c-C9H8) in Space (TMC-1 cold dark molecular cloud) with rotational spectroscopy. This major challenging breakthrough is the first step to understand the potential formation mechanisms of these species in the interstellar medium. Moreover, the team derives a high abundance of indene that needs to be explained through alternative and efficient chemical routes.
The team also reports the first time discovery in space of two other organic compounds, the c-C3HCCH (ethynyl cyclopropenylidene), and c-C5H6 (cyclopentadiene).
These discoveries are the result from the groundbreaking Yebes 40m Observatory sensitive survey with the new NANOCOSMOS Q-band receiver of the TMC-1 cold molecular cloud. This survey has led to the discovery of multiple molecular species since 2020 with more than 25 molecules, 15 of them for the first time in Space.
The best for NANOCOSMOS is yet to come. Stay tuned!
Pure hydrocarbon cycles in TMC-1: Discovery of ethynyl cyclopropenylidene, cyclopentadiene and indene (Accepted for publication in A&A Letters, 2021). Authors: J. Cernicharo, M. Agúndez, C. Cabezas, B. Tercero, N. Marcelino, J. R. Pardo, & P. de Vicente.
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.
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.
Members of the Nanocosmos team from the ICMM-Madrid (ESISNA Group of the Institute of Material Science of Madrid), together with other researchers, have published an interesting paper in the JACS, Journal of the American Chemical Society: Atomic hydrogen makes the difference. The supply of atomic hydrogen during the on-surface annealing of PAHs substantially favors the formation of intermolecular covalent C–C bonds. The reason resides in the radical-like intermediate formed as a consequence of molecular super-hydrogenation.
Read more about those interesting results in the paper “On-Surface Hydrogen-Induced Covalent Coupling of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons via a Superhydrogenated Intermediate“, one of the Supplementary Cover Art for the Journal of the American Chemical Society (February 27, 2019).