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Latest research helps astronomers model how new stars and planets form

An Edinburgh scientist has been involved in publishing data that will help astronomers better understand what they see in space, and model how new stars and planets form.

The data focuses on how interstellar ice evaporates and recondenses in space, depending on how close or far it is from a star, and the formation of snowlines where specific substances condense.

Scientists said it will provide astronomers with the information they need to understand how interstellar ice performs during the formation of stars and planets.

Nineteen scientists from around the world coordinated the collection of data spanning more than 20 years, and helped interpret the findings.

Professor Martin McCoustra, an astrochemist at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, was one of the scientists who helped produce the consensus.

He has been recreating deep space in his Edinburgh laboratory for more than 15 years, using ultra-high vacuum technology to mimic space conditions and examine the chemistry behind how stars and planets are created.

Professor McCoustra said: “The astronomy community can now find all the data relating to thermal desorption in one place, thanks to the group effort behind this data compilation.

“We’ve also highlighted the limitations of the data to ensure it is used appropriately in models and to encourage other scientists to explore ice desorption processes.”

The data was published as an article in the journal Earth and Space Chemistry.

Professor McCoustra said: “Our data sets values for the two parameters used to describe how quickly molecules desorb from dust grain surfaces.

“First, the activation energy for desorption, tells us how strongly a chemical substance is held on a surface. Second, the frequency factor tells us how fast desorption would occur if there was no activation energy required.

“In space we see snowlines just like those on hills and mountains on Earth. These tell us where specific compounds like water, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide freeze on the space dust that surrounds young stars.

“Astronomers want to understand where these lines are and why. To do that we need to understand how the molecules desorb when the grains are heated up.

“This will help them better understand why different types of planet form, from wet, rocky ones like Earth to a gas giant like Jupiter, and where.”

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