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Colette Salyk Secures Grants from Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI)

Colette Salyk

Colette Salyk, Associate Professor of Astronomy, has secured a grant award from the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in support of her program titled “A DSHARP-MIRI Treasury survey of Chemistry in Planet-forming Regions.”

Utilizing the James Webb Space Telescope, Salyk will observe 17 actively forming planetary systems. NASA’s press release provides great detail and quotes from Salyk explaining the project:

“These particular systems were previously surveyed by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), the largest radio telescope in the world, for the Disk Substructures at High Angular Resolution Project (DSHARP). Webb will measure spectra that can reveal molecules in the inner regions of these protoplanetary disks, complementing the details ALMA has provided about the disks’ outer regions. These inner regions are where rocky, Earth-like planets can start to form.

Salyk seeks the details found in infrared light and will be able to assess the quantities of water, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane, and ammonia–among many other molecules–in each disk. Critically, she will be able to count the molecules that contain elements essential to life as we know it, including oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen. How? With spectroscopy: Webb will capture all the light emitted at the center of each protoplanetary disk as a spectrum, which produces a detailed pattern of colors based on the wavelengths of light emitted. These unique color patterns can be used to identify which molecules are present and build inventories of the contents within each protoplanetary disk. The strength of these patterns also carries information about the temperature and quantity of each molecule.

‘Webb’s data will also help us identify where the molecules are within the overall system,’ Salyk said. ‘If they’re hot, that implies they are closer to the star. If they’re cooler, they may be farther away.’

Knowing what’s in the inner regions of the disks has other benefits as well. Has water, for example, made it to this area, where habitable planets may be forming? ‘One of the things that’s really amazing about planets – change the chemistry just a little bit and you can get these dramatically different worlds,’ Salyk continued. ‘That’s why we’re interested in the chemistry. We’re trying to figure out how the materials initially found in a system may end up as different types of planets.’”

May 19, 2023
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