Stardust, an ultra-high vacuum machine built in the project Nanocosmos ERC, was specifically conceived to simulate, with a high level of control, the complex conditions of stardust formation and processing in the environment of evolved stars. In addition, the AROMA setup was built to analyse the molecular content of the samples synthesized by Stardust.
In the words of José Ángel Martín Gago (Institute of Materials Science of Madrid, ICMM-CSIC, Spain), responsible for the Stardust instrument, “Mimicking the conditions of the envelope of an evolved star, laboratory experiments allow scientists to follow, step by step, the formation process of dust grains, from atoms to simple molecules and their growth to more complex clusters of molecules.”
For José Cernicharo (Institute of Fundamental Physics, IFF-CSIC, Spain), lead co-investigator of the project together with Gago and Christine Joblin (IRAP-CNRS, France), “That process is important because those grains of dust, which emerge from the final stages of the evolution of medium-sized stars like our Sun will provide the fundamental pieces needed for the birth of the planets and the main ingredients for the onset of life once injected into the interstellar medium.”
This is why it is essential to develop experiments combining laboratory astrophysics, surface science and astronomical observations to unveil the chemical routes that operate in the inner layers of the envelope of evolved stars.
The results obtained show the formation of amorphous carbon nanograins and aliphatic carbon clusters with traces of aromatic species and no fullerenes. This shows that the latter species cannot form effectively by gas-phase condensation at these temperatures in the zone of the evolved star where the dust is formed, a region that extends up to a few stellar radii.
Carbon dust analogues were produced in Stardust and analysed with several characterization techniques including Scanning Tunneling Microscopy and mass spectrometry with the AROMA setup. To produce them only gas carbon atoms and molecular hydrogen were used in a ratio close to that in the atmospheres of AGB stars.
The results showed two types of products: amorphous carbonaceous nanograins – the most abundant, considered to be the main component of carbonaceous star dust – and aliphatic carbon groups. But almost no aromatic molecules were found in the analysis.
According to Joblin, “Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are widespread in massive star-forming regions and in carbon-rich protoplanetary and planetary nebulae. Large carbonaceous molecules like buckminsterfullerene C60 have also been detected in some of these environments. But it seems that they need different conditions to be formed”.
One possible pathway could be through thermal processing of aliphatic material on the surface of dust, which could take place as a result of the significant rise in the temperature of nanograins that occurs in highly UV-irradiated environments. Those results give us new insights into the chemistry of carbonaceous stardust seed formation and foster new observations in order to constrain the physical and chemical conditions in the inner shells of the envelops of evolved stars.