Skip to Content

About

The Astrochemistry in Charlottesville is a National Science Foundation Center for Chemical Innovation that is developing our understanding of interstellar chemistry to the point where chemistry can be used as a primary tool for exploring the formation and structure of the Universe.  The major technological advance that will revolutionize our understanding of the origin and evolution of chemistry over cosmic time scales is the next generation of radio astronomy observatories that will soon become operational under the guidance of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO).  These new interferometers, headlined by the most advanced observatory ever built on Earth (the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array or ALMA: www.almaobservatory.org), will literally change the way we view the chemistry of the Universe by providing high resolution images of the distribution of molecular material in our local galactic neighborhood and of galaxies from earlier times in the evolution of the Universe.  Through the presence of the Astrochemistry in Charlottesville (CCU) and the NRAO, Charlottesville is poised to become the home to a field of science that will see explosive growth in the next decade.

The CCU is forging a unique research collaboration among leading scientists in the study of interstellar chemistry from The Ohio State University, Emory University, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, the University of Colorado, the University of Wisconsin and a group of chemists and physicist at the University of Virginia, engaged in research to understand the fundamentals of chemical reactions. The group of chemists participating in the center have discovered a significant number of the new interstellar molecules identified in the past twenty-four months.

The science pursued by the CCU will provide new ways to address the most basic questions in science.  In the field of astronomy, a deeper understanding of the process by which new stars, solar systems, and habitable planets are formed will emerge as chemistry is used to determine the precise physical conditions during the formation of these fundamental galactic bodies.  The chemistry in the local environment of planet formation also directly impacts our scientific understanding of the emergence of life on habitable planets by establishing the inventory of chemical building blocks that are delivered to planets for the subsequent synthesis of key biological molecules.

While addressing these basic science problems that have captivated humans for centuries, the Center will grapple with 21st Century problems facing chemistry, the sciences, and society.  The chemistry at work in the interstellar medium occurs under conditions very different from the common terrestrial conditions chemists have traditionally explored.  Reactions driven by high energy excitation from extreme ultraviolet and x-ray light or by cosmic rays have practical importance as manufacturing moves to small length scales where high energy radiation is required for nano-patterning.  The chemistry, under these conditions, can produce new forms of common materials that may provide the basis of new materials.  In fact, September 4, 2010 marked the 25th anniversary of perhaps the highest impact observation in chemistry of the last 50 years: the creation of a new form of carbon, the buckyball (C60), in an experiment designed to produce the novel molecular species found in interstellar chemistry.

To achieve a mechanistic understanding of the chemistry at work in the varied and peculiar environments off Earth, the Center is mounting a major effort to extract the chemically important information from a torrent of observational data that will be produced by the next-generation observatories.  The conversion of enormous data sets being produced at unprecedented rates into chemically useful images brings the CCU research effort into the emerging field of data enabled science.  The collaboration between scientists, computer scientists, and mathematicians that is required to tame this data deluge presents a problem of far reaching societal impact including the needs of government, business, and medicine to extract relevant information from data sets to large to examine individually. 

Related to the need to analyze the astronomical data is the requirement that laboratory spectroscopy methods increase their data throughput and analysis rates to keep pace with the astronomy observations.  The CCU is leading the way in the development of high-throughput chemical sensors that can observe the full chemical environment (instead of a specific target species) in real-time.  The development of real-time chemical sensors based on broadband spectroscopy has applications in the military for battlefield monitoring of toxic substances, national defense for counter-terrorism, and environmental sciences for real-time monitoring of atmospheric pollutants or climate-related atmospheric species.

The CCU is also pursuing an extensive educational effort, including student programs, new courses, and displays and outreach activates at the NRAO’s Green Bank Science Center and other museums.