Astronomers spot a young star with more than a sprinkling of salt in ‘shocking and exciting’ discovery
In order to detect molecules in space, astronomers use radio telescopes and a method known as optical spectrometry to observe what wavelengths of light are being emitted and absorbed by material like gas and dust clouds and even stars. As these are chemical fingerprints are distinctive amongst compounds and elements, the spectral spikes tell them exactly what molecules are present.
The new ALMA ( Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) observations contain a bristling array of spectral signatures – or transitions, as astronomers refer to them – of the same molecules. To create such strong and varied molecular fingerprints, the temperature differences where the molecules reside must be extreme, ranging anywhere from 100 kelvin to 4,000 Kelvin (about -175C to 3700C). An in-depth study of these spectral spikes could provide insights about how the star is heating the disk, which would also be a useful measure of the luminosity of the star.
Brett McGuire, a chemist at the NRAO in Charlottesville, Virginia, and co-author on the paper, says: “When we look at the information ALMA has provided, we see about 60 different transitions – or unique fingerprints – of molecules like sodium chloride and potassium chloride coming from the disk. That is both shocking and exciting.”