MIRAGE: Unlocking the origins of cosmic carbon rings

Ian Sims and Ilsa Cooke of the Physics Institute of Rennes have been awarded a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship, funded by the European Union, to study the reactions of aromatic molecules in space
Ian Sims et Ilsa Cooke - copyright UR1/ Frédéric Obé

The project

Their study, titled “MIRAGE” --- which stands for Measuring Interstellar Reactions of Aromatics by Gas-phase Experiments --- aims to measure chemical reactions of a particular organic molecule, benzene, down to the low temperatures found in interstellar space.

The context

Scientists studying a cold nebula in the Taurus constellation with radio telescopes recently detected an aromatic molecule called benzonitrile. Aromatic molecules contain at least one especially stable hexagonal ring of carbon atoms and are abundant throughout the Universe. Despite this, the detection of benzonitrile marks the first time a specific aromatic molecule has been identified in space using radio astronomy.  Its presence in Taurus at very cold temperatures (around -263 °C) is not easy to explain.

The objective of the project

To understand how benzonitrile and other aromatics could form in Taurus, the team led by Ian Sims will conduct laboratory experiments to accurately measure how fast reactions of benzene proceed at different temperatures. To do this, they will use a new technique in development at the Université de Rennes 1 that uses microwave spectroscopy, the same kind of detection technique used in radio telescopes. This apparatus will be able to measure not only the speed of the reaction, but also the proportion of aromatic rings formed compared to other molecules.  Scientists at the Green Bank telescope in West Virginia will then use the laboratory data from Rennes to make measurements of other aromatic molecules in cold interstellar space.

ID card

European project MIRAGE - Marie S. Curie Action
Funding: European Commission HORIZON 2020 Program
Establishment: Université de Rennes 1
Beneficiary: Ilsa COOKE
Scientific Leader Name: Ian SIMS
Laboratory / UMR: IPR (Institute of Physics of Rennes) UMR CNRS 6251
Duration of the project: From 01/05/2019 to 30/04/2021 (2 years)