Astronomy has shown us striking images of galaxies, star clusters, and vast glowing nebula. But for many scientists, that is not where the excitement lies.
For astronomers who study the chemistry of the cosmos, the most intriguing discoveries are found in the light itself. Spikes and dips at specific parts of the spectrum tell us what kinds of atoms and molecules are present in stars and the places where they form.
Radio telescopes are especially powerful astrochemistry tools and able to tease out the faint, telltale spectral signatures of atoms and molecules in space. And none has done more to help our understanding of the chemistry of protoplanetary disks than the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA).
Protoplanetary disks are rotating bands of dust and gas around young stars. These regions are more than just planet factories; they also are chemical cauldrons brewing up complex organic molecules that could eventually lay the groundwork for life elsewhere in the cosmos. But how does that happen? What sorts of chemicals actually form around young stars? And, how do they eventually end up as part of newborn planets?
To help answer these questions, ALMA studied a rather unusual protoplanetary disk around the young star ...