Physicist Awarded Grant to Study Interstellar Processes
A physicist in the College of Arts and Sciences has received a major grant award, supporting his work in experimental astrophysics and surface science.
The National Science Foundation has awarded Professor Gianfranco Vidali a three-year, $736,600 grant to study how molecules behave in the densest region of interstellar space—matter in the space between star systems. Highly interdisciplinary, the project will combine proven techniques with new experimental and theoretical methods, producing data that can be analyzed and shared with astronomers to help them better understand their observations.
“Interstellar space is not empty, but contains hydrogen and other gases, as well as sub-micron-sized dust grains known as ‘stardust,’” Vidali says. “These dust grains are covered with layers of ice, composed mostly of water, not to mention simple atoms and molecules. The diffusion of atoms and molecules [within ices] can cause reactions that produce more complex molecules, some of which are the building blocks of life. We’ll study how these molecules stick, diffuse and depart ices under harsh conditions of low temperatures, comparable to those in interstellar space.”
Atoms are the basic units of matter, made up of particles (i.e., protons, neutrons and electrons). Molecules are two or more atoms stuck together.
Vidali’s research team—including postdoctoral fellow Jiao He G’14, Ph.D. student S.M. Emtiaz and several undergraduates—plans to simulate various interstellar medium (ISM) environments at Syracuse. This will enable them to collect and analyze data about the behavior of atoms and molecules in an ultra-high vacuum environment and at 10 degrees above Absolute Zero. They also will mimic the effects of ultraviolet radiation in space, necessary for triggering ISM chemical reactions and causing substances to fluoresce in visible light.