Researchers at Virginia, Harvard and Ohio universities are about to join University of Arizona scientists and students in using the Arizona Radio Observatory telescopes on Mount Graham and Kitt Peak to study the chemistry of deep space.
The UA is part of a new National Science Foundation Center for Chemical Innovation, a collaboration called the Center for Chemistry of the Universe.
The NSF awarded the center an initial two-year grant of $1.5 million and, after two years, could decide to fund the center at $4 million per year for up to 10 years.
The center will combine laboratory experiments, theoretical studies and radio telescope observations to probe the chemical processes that form molecules in space, including complex molecules that may seed young planets with the building blocks of life
"This center is a landmark, in my view, because it shows that the chemistry community is taking a real interest in astrochemistry," said Lucy Ziurys, UA professor of chemistry and of astronomy, and director of the Arizona Radio Observatory, or the ARO.
"I'm excited because the agencies that fund chemistry are beginning to recognize that astrochemistry is a real chemical field, not just some minor sub-field of astronomy," Ziurys said.
"Only recently have people realized how much chemistry is going on in interstellar space. That chemistry is measured with radio telescopes," she added. "So if you don't understand how the measurements are made by using radio telescopes, you'll probably have no idea of what the data mean or understand what's happening out there."
The new Center for Chemistry of the Universe, which is headed by scientists at the University of Virginia, also includes leading astrochemists from The Ohio State University, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the National Institute of Standards and Technology as well as the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.
"Students not just in astronomy but in chemistry and physics are eager to explore the chemistry of the universe. There's an obvious demand," Ziurys said. "And if astrochemistry inspires more young people to go into science, that's great."
Ziurys currently supervises eight graduate students in astrochemistry – about two more than she planned on, but she couldn't turn them down. She is organizing a weeklong spring school for about a dozen students from The Ohio State, Harvard and the University of Virginia at the Arizona Radio Observatory in March.
Ensuring that more U.S. students from more universities have access to radio telescopes is important to the future of U.S. science, particularly with the international Atacama Large Millimeter Array project and other next-generation telescopes coming online or being launched into space in the near future, Ziurys said.
The astrochemistry program that Ziurys heads at the UA is unique. Chemistry graduate students have regular access to state-of-the-art radio telescopes, which are the 10-meter Submillimeter Telescope on Mount Graham near Safford, Ariz., and the 12-meter radio telescope on Kitt Peak, 50 miles southwest of Tucson.
Ziurys and her group at the UA have used the telescopes to discover a score of important interstellar molecules, including glycolaldehye, the first sugar found in space; phosphorus oxide, which contains two of the five most necessary ingredients for life; sodium chloride, or common table salt; and other molecules that astronomers had never before detected and are needed for life.
The Arizona Radio Observatory telescopes are operated around-the-clock during the nine or 10 driest months of the year. Arizona's dry mountain climate is ideal for radio astronomy.
And, the telescopes can be operated remotely. Astronomers from the University of Taiwan and the University of Hong Kong are regular remote users of ARO telescopes.
It will be no trick for students in Virginia, Ohio or Massachusetts to operate the Arizona telescopes remotely, too.
"Our Arizona students can't always drop what they're doing and go up to the telescope, so they just log on from their offices to observe and take data. It gives them a lot of flexibility, they can do real projects in a short period of time, and it doesn't cost travel money."