Destination Deep Space

Astrochemist wins time on space observatory

Carol Clark

Illustration of satellite

Raw materials: The Herschel space telescope is revealing a surprising array of activity in cold, dark regions where interstellar material condenses.

D. Ducros/European Space Agency

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Tracing our origins

Astrochemist Susanna Widicus Weaver is set to begin one of the first broad spectral surveys of small organic molecules in deep space.

Her lab’s proposal—to search for the raw materials of life in star-forming regions—recently won forty-two hours of observation time on the Herschel Space Observatory, which launched in 2009.

“I watched the Herschel instrument evolve over the past ten years, so I have to pinch myself that this is actually happening,” says Weaver, assistant professor of chemistry, who as a graduate student at Caltech would visit the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory to marvel at the Herschel technology.

Headed by the European Space Agency, Herschel is the largest telescope in space. Its 3.5-meter diameter mirror offers an unprecedented view of the “cool universe,” the domain of objects like tiny stars and molecular clouds that barely emit light. Scientists believe that the cool universe holds secrets to how life forms.

Herschel operates in the far-infrared range, penetrating the veil of gas and dust shrouding these cooler realms by bridging the gap between infrared and radio astronomy.

Weaver and her students will use their time on the Herschel to search for building blocks of life—a range of simple molecules they have identified as key to prebiotic pathways in interstellar chemistry—in this largely unexplored area of deep space. 

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