26 October 2010

10 million for research into solar systems

Astrophysicist Jes Jørgensen, Associate Professor at the Centre for Star and Planet Formation and the Natural History Museum of Denmark have been awarded the Lundbeck Foundation’s Junior Group Leader Fellowship of 10 million kroner for research into solar systems.

Jes Jørgensen researches the origins of solar systems like our own. Stars, like our own sun,  are formed in dense clouds of dust and gas. The clouds condense and within just a few hundred thousand years they collapse and form a young star, a so-called protostar. A disk made up of the remnants of the dust and gas clouds surrounds the star and these remnants can form planets.

Several new telescopes will make it possible over the next few years to zoom in and study the fine details in the structure of protostars and their disks. In this way, they might be able to answer questions that are fundamentally linked to the origin of our solar system.

An example of the questions which researchers hope to answer is where and when molecules such as water and organic molecules were formed in the star formation process. Earlier this year they showed how, with the help of earth based astronomical observations, they could identify the presence of water vapour in a disk around such a young star.

”Since then we have found similar evidence of water around a number of other young stars and have been able to show that the chemical properties of the water vapour – specifically the ratio between ordinary and 'heavy' water resembles the ratios, which can be observed in comets and in our oceans”, explains Jes Jørgensen. ”So something indicates that much of the water we see on Earth today comes from the very early stages in the star formation process.”

Stars are formed in dense clouds of dust and gas. The clouds
collapse and form a young star. A disk made up of the
remnants of the dust and gas clouds surrounds the star and
these remnants can form planets. NASA, Artist impression

Using a large, new telescope, Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), which is currently being built in Chile, and is scheduled to begin observations next year, Jes Jørgensen and his group will measure the precise chemical composition of the gas surrounding young stars – for example, whether in addition to water there are also more complex molecules present.

In addition, observations made with the groundbreaking new instrument will determine what the physical properties of the disks are – and whether they are on their way to forming planets. Together these observations will help to determine how the earliest stages of the formation of stars and planets are connected with how  our own solar system looks today.

Jes Jørgensen received his MSc in physics and astronomy in 2000 from the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen. He then moved to Leiden in Holland to research the physical and chemical evolution of young stars and received his PhD in 2004. Later he was a Post Doctoral Fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Boston, USA and then worked at the university in Bonn, Germany before he returned to Copenhagen at the start of 2010 for an associate professor position at the newly founded Centre for Star and Planet Formation. The Lundbeck Foundation fellowship comes with a grant of 10 million kroner over a period of 5 years. The grant will mean two new PhD and two post doc positions.

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