In an experiment designed to look for the building blocks of matter in the dust clouds of interstellar space, NASA recently launched a high-altitude sounding rocket containing the Colorado High-resolution Echelle Stellar Spectrograph (CHESS) payload. Enabling scientists to carry out the most comprehensive single instrument study of its type ever conducted, the research promises to give new insights into the formation of stars.
Launched using a Black Brant IX suborbital sounding rocket from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, the CHESS instrument package – designed by the University of Colorado – climbed high above Earth's atmosphere to look at the ultraviolet light from a bright star with its on-board spectrograph. By interpreting the data captured by the instrument, the researchers can determine the atoms and molecules of the dust clouds that the light has passed through on its way to the earth.
"These atoms are the raw materials, the very building blocks for the next generation of stars and planets," said Kevin France at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "We're making detailed measurements of how many atoms have transitioned into molecules, which is the very first step toward star formation."
Knowing what frequencies are absorbed by particular molecules, scientists hope to be able to determine the frequencies missing from the collected ultraviolet light to figure out the types of particles encountered. As carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen are the basic constituents of stars and planets when conglomerated in large enough amounts (and over large enough periods of time), the researchers hope to measure the abundance and distribution of such molecules within the studied dust clouds.
And, with the CHESS spectrograph’s ability to also provide detailed and comprehensive measurements of how fast the detected molecules are moving and how turbulent the gas is, scientists also hope to be able to characterize a given cloud of dust and ascertain if it is a likely candidate for future star formation. The detection of such things as ionized carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, or even carbon monoxide molecules will also allow researchers to establish how old a cloud may be and help with further study of how stars form from these clouds.
CHESS is supported through the NASA Sounding Rocket Program at the Goddard Space Flight Center’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.