A Star Is Born: Professor’s Stellar Research Makes News

Thanks to a team that included a prominent Benedictine College astronomer, with an assist from students, we are one step closer to discovering how “stellar nurseries” work  — places where stars are born.

“The universe’s carbon atoms complete a journey that spans eons — forming in the hearts of dying stars, then becoming a part of planets and even living organisms,” as one press release about the discovery put it. “Now, a team has uncovered the chemistry behind one tiny, but critical, step in this process.”

If you can, picture trillions of molecules colliding and swirling over millions of years — then collapsing. That might be the precursors to new stars and planets.

Dr. Christopher Shingledecker, Assistant Professor of Physics & Astronomy at Benedictine College, and some of his students, were part of an international team of researchers worked on a project whose latest treatment was published in the Feb. 6 issue of the journal Nature Astronomy. The work builds on the discovery of a separate team, also including Dr. Shingledecker, of significant quantities of relatively large organic molecules with ring-like structures in the Taurus Molecular Cloud (TMC-1) in 2021.

The question, then, was what chemical reactions could possibly be efficient enough to make such molecules, which are more often associated with combustion, in extremely cold nebulae with temperatures near absolute zero (-440 degrees Fahrenheit)?

“Like human bodies, stellar nurseries contain a lot of organic molecules, which are made up mostly of carbon and hydrogen atoms,” reported the scientists via the University of Colorado, Boulder. Their study reveals how “certain large organic molecules may form inside these clouds. It’s one tiny step in the eons-long chemical journey that carbon atoms undergo — forming in the hearts of dying stars, then becoming part of planets, living organisms on Earth and perhaps beyond.”

In this new work, the team’s findings hinged on a deceptively simple molecule called ortho-benzyne. Drawing on experiments and computer simulations, Dr. Shingledecker and his students reproduced the effects of ortho-benzyne chemistry on the abundance of molecules in space and found that the new reactions were amazingly efficient. The computer modeling results generated clouds of gas containing roughly the same mix of organic molecules that astronomers had observed in TMC-1 using telescopes.

“Small building blocks become big building blocks,” Shingledecker said. “The results of this study represent the most promising lead yet in solving the mystery of why more complex, ring-like molecules in space are so abundant.”

“We’re only at the start of truly understanding how we go from these small building blocks to larger molecules,” Shingledecker said. “And this work represents only the first in what will hopefully be a series of papers on the chemistry of ortho-benzyne and its role in producing molecules in cold interstellar nebulae.”

Co-authors on the new paper include researchers at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, CU Boulder in Colorado, Leiden University in the Netherlands, the University of Würzburg in Germany, and the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland.


Editorial Staff

Benedictine College’s mission can Transform Culture in America by modeling community in an age of incivility, spreading faith in an age of hopelessness, and committing to scholarship in a “post-truth” era. We create video and other media content to promote positive messages of faith, hope, and love while Ex Corde Media Fellows program provides students with the tools, experiences, and contacts they need to enter the 21st century media world as effective communicators. Learn about the Ex Corde Media Fellows program.