This new view of the Orion nebula highlights fledgling stars hidden in the gas and clouds. It shows infrared observations taken by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and the European Space Agency's Herschel mission, in which NASA plays an important role.

Physics Department Conducts Interstellar Cloud Research

Two researchers studying the chemistry of interstellar cloud formation sit in front of a computer screen that has a picture of the emission research

Graduate student Michael Turner is working with Dr. Kaufman on a detailed model of shock waves in interstellar gas (Dillon Adams photo).

By Amanda Holst, Public Affairs Assistant

Have you ever taken a look at the night sky and wondered how stars and planets are born?

Department of Physics and Astronomy Chair Michael Kaufman does research that guides astronomical observation of nascent stars, recently leading to a major discovery.

“Interstellar space is important because not only is it the material out of which stars form, but it is also the regions into which stars deposit material back once they die,” he said.

Kaufman studies newly-formed stars and their natal clouds, particularly the chemical components of the clouds, including abundant oxygen and carbon atoms.

Last year, he worked with a team of international astronomers on the Herschel Oxygen Project. They used the Herschel Space Observatory to find evidence of molecular oxygen in the Orion Nebula. Previous searches for oxygen molecules came up empty. Kaufman’s physics explained why the oxygen seemed to be missing.

“It’s frozen in many environments,” Kaufman explained. “When it’s stuck to the little dust grains in interstellar clouds, it doesn’t act like a gas, it produces a different spectrum which is extremely difficult to detect. We picked the Orion region since we guessed it might have the conditions to keep oxygen off the dust. And we were right.”

According to Kaufman, molecular oxygen cannot be observed from Earth because its atmosphere block the incoming light.

Instead, astronomers peer into interstellar clouds using telescopes in space like Herschel, which detect infrared and radio light unhindered by the Earth’s atmosphere.

Graduate student Michael Turner is working on a detailed model of shock waves in interstellar gas, one way to produce abundant molecular oxygen molecules, according to Kaufman’s research.

“I’ve been taking the computed physical conditions from our calculations, including the temperature and abundance of oxygen, and use these to compute the predicted intensity of emission from oxygen molecules,” Turner said.

Such work is beneficial for students planning to enter any technical field, not just physics, according to Kaufman.

“Physics and astronomy are unique in that they tackle problems from the subatomic to the scale of the universe,” Kaufman said. “You learn how to think from multiple directions and how to analyze problems. These are skills that are useful in many careers.”

Kaufman and Turner hope to have a paper published on their work. Meanwhile, Kaufman continues work with his colleagues on new Herschel observatory projects to study water and carbon chemistry in interstellar clouds.