Laboratory Astrophysics

We trace the molecular basis for the evolution of interstellar clouds, the formation of Solar Systems, the incorporation of molecular species into planetary bodies, including comets and meteorites and how these systems evolve in time. Astrochemistry is often a culmination of different fields acting synergistically: i) Astronomical observations to seek the chemical compositions of the interstellar medium, of planetary exospheres/atmospheres, comets, asteroids, etc. ii) Modeling, from macroscopic astrophysical environments that reinforce our understanding of the underlying physics and kinetic processes are correct, down to the atomic level where quantum chemical calculations provide spectroscopic information for hitherto unseen molecular carriers, and iii) Experimental studies which are conducted in a laboratory setting to measure how chemistry may be affected by the harsh astrophysical environment often measuring physical or spectral properties, or studying chemical reactivity, surface processes, or the interaction of radiation with matter. The latter often involves extremes of cold temperature, ultra-high vacuum, and simulating multiple radiation sources. Ultimately, astrochemistry seeks to help provide constraints on how the origin of life on Earth may have occurred, and how likely it may be to occur elsewhere in the Universe.

We also investigate the formation and evolution of planetary bodies within the Solar System by constraining the compositions of their surfaces using a range of telescopic and spacecraft observations. A critical component to interpreting these remote measurements is laboratory reflectance and emissivity measurements of well-characterized analog materials under the appropriate temperatures and pressure conditions.  Using environment chambers capable of simulating the near-surface environment of airless bodies (e.g., the Moon, asteroids, Phobos and Deimos) and a Fourier Transform infrared (FTIR) spectrometer, we can measure the thermal infrared emission of analog samples under simulated airless body conditions. Laboratory measurements like these are critical for interpreting surface compositions from current and future thermal infrared measurements including Diviner Lunar Radiometer (Diviner) observations of the Moon, OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer (OTES) observations of Bennu, and BepiColombo’s MERTIS observations of Mercury.

Research Sites

Christopher Bennet’s Research Page