From NASA Ames / Spitzer: “NASA Develops Key to Cosmic Carbon’s Molecular Evolution”



Spitzer

05.14.2013
Ruth Dasso Marlaire
Public Affairs Office
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.
650-604-4789

“Scientists at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., now have the capability to systematically investigate the molecular evolution of cosmic carbon. For the first time, these scientists are able to automatically interpret previously unknown infrared emissions from space that come from surprisingly complex organic molecules, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are abundant and important across the universe.

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For the first time, scientists are able to automatically interpret previously unknown infrared emissions from space that come from surprisingly complex organic molecules, called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are abundant and important across the universe. They use spectra of infrared radiation to identify unknown substances in space. These spectra are as good as fingerprints for identification purposes. Analyzing the PAH bands represents a powerful new astronomical tool to trace the evolution of cosmic carbon and, at the same time, probe conditions across the universe. Image credit: NASA Ames

Between 2003 and 2005, thanks to its unprecedented sensitivity, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, managed and operated by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., created maps of the tell-tale PAH signature across large regions of space, from hot regions of harsh ultraviolet (UV) radiation close to stars, to cold, dark clouds where stars and planets form. By exclusively using their unique collection of authentic PAH spectra, coupled with algorithm-driven, blind-computational analyses, scientists at Ames were able to interpret the cosmic infrared maps with complex organic molecules. They found that PAHs changed significantly in size, electrical charge and structure, to adjust to the different environment at each spot in the map. Carbon is one of the most abundant atoms in space and scientists believe that the spectral changes across these maps trace the molecular evolution of carbon across the universe.

The Spitzer Space Telescope is a NASA mission managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory located on the campus of the California Institute of Technology and part of NASA’s Infrared Processing and Analysis Center.
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