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Nigel Mason - Astrochemistry - The Cradle of life

This webinar is part of our webinar series Astrobiology Goes to Schools in India. The lecture (13-18 yo) will be open to all, but the RSVP option is currently restricted to Indian schools who registered for our event. Thank you for your understanding and looking forward to your participation!

Nigel Mason - Astrochemistry - The Cradle of life

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About the event

Lecture for 13-18 yo

Astrochemistry - The Cradle of life

The last decade has revealed a rich and unexpected chemistry in space. In those regions of the Interstellar Medium (ISM) where giant clouds of cold dust gather to form stars (and planets) a rich and diverse chemistry  has been revealed with the synthesis of a diversity of organic molecules including the presence of fullerenes and tantalising evidence of prebiotic compounds that may form the building blocks of life.

Simultaneously space missions across the Solar system are likewise revealing a range of chemistry from the formation of organics in the atmosphere of Titan to the discovery of ‘chemical zoo’ - in the ices of the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Yet how can such chemistry occur in environments where the temperature is so low that chemical reactions should almost cease? How in the empty regions of the ISM do reactants interact? And what are the energy sources that stimulate such chemistry?

The field of astrochemistry explores these questions and, through a combination of observation, experiment and modelling, is providing answers to the question of how and what molecules may be formed in astronomical/space environments. This research that may reveal the chemical origins of life itself and hence whether life may be prevalent throughout the Universe and how we can search for it in other exoplanetary systems.

In this lecture I will present a summary of what we know now and what future missions such as the JSWT space telescope, ESA’s Juice mission to Jovian system and Exoplanet studies (CHEOPS, PLATO and ARIEL) will allow us to discover.

About the speaker 

Professor Nigel Mason OBE is a Professor of Molecular Physics at the University of Kent.

Professor Mason began his research career by exploring the simultaneous absorption of energy from photons and electrons to excite an atom, a process akin to two photon absorption and predicted theoretically in the 1930s but not previously demonstrated experimentally until Nigel's PhD studies and early postdoctoral studies (1984-87) in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, University College London (UCL). This work led to his being awarded a Royal Society University Research Fellowship (1990-1998), which allowed him to form the Molecular Physics Group at UCL. In 2002 he became a Professor at The Open University which hosts one of the largest planetary and space science research teams in the UK and hosts AstrobioloyOU the largest research team in astrobiology research in UK (if not Europe). In 2018 he moved to the University of Kent to be Head of School of Physical Sciences. He is also a visiting Professor at ATOMKI radiation facility in Debrecen, Hungary.

The discovery of the ozone hole and global warming, with the subsequent need to understand spectroscopy and reaction dynamics in terrestrial stratosphere, led to Nigel's development in physical chemistry/chemical physics and his first experiments on ice surfaces, since it was determined that such surface chemistry played a key role in polar stratospheric vortex leading to ozone depletion. These surface studies led to his developing research programme to study ices on planetary surfaces and on dust grains in the interstellar medium and thus became an ‘astrochemist and planetary scientist’ exploring the origins of life on Earth and whether life may exist elsewhere in the cosmos.

His research has led Nigel to leadership roles in many national and international research programmes and he is currently coordinator of Europlanet, Europe’s largest forum for planetary sciences, which became a membership Society in 2018-19 of which he was the first President.

Today Nigel’s research spans a wide range of astronomy, planetary science and molecular physics looking at the role of physical and chemical processes in  planetary (exoplanetary) systems, the origins of life on Earth and search for life elsewhere in the solar system and beyond.

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