My research is focused on understanding the birth of worlds like our own Earth or Jupiter, but also the development of chemical complexity in space and how this influences the composition of exoplanets.
From 2008-2015, I led an international team – dubbed ‘HEXOS’ – of more than 60 scientists in exploring the origins of organics in interstellar space. Through HEXOS, we have provided a near-complete census of the most abundant species in best template objects in space.
Planetary systems that take shape around young stars are fashioned out of material leftover from the stellar formation process. This material, which consists mainly of molecular hydrogen (H2) gas, orbits the star in a protoplanetary disk for several millions of years before it condenses into planets or is dispersed by winds driven by the radiation of the star. In addition, trace amounts of cosmic dust (think tiny seeds of sand in space) and other gas species are present in the disk.
It is amazing to think about this, but Earth is actually a carbon- and nitrogen-poor world.
We think of the planet as having these elements everywhere, as they are essential for life as we know it. However, it turns out that if you look at how much is in the Earth’s mantle, it’s many orders of magnitude below what was present in its primordial materials.
Since 2012, I have been exploring the question of the chemistry associated with planet formation using the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile. ALMA was built by an international consortium (USA, Europe, Japan and Chile) and is located in the high Atacama Plateau in the Andes Mountains. What makes ALMA special is that it is comprised of more than 50 individual telescopes operating together using a technique we call interferometry.