Science & Technology in Action

8th Edition

Space chemistry

Discover Science & Engineering

Space chemistry is a relatively recent area of specialisation compared to astrophysics. Atoms and molecules are not very abundant in space and their average temperature is very low. Molecular collisions that result in chemical change are rare but, given enough time, complex molecules can form.

Contains the full lesson along with a supporting toolkit, including teachers’ notes.

Lesson excerpt

Space science is very often associated with physics. Physicists have been asking questions about the origins of the universe and using their specialised knowledge to make educated guesses about the past, the present and the future. Mathematics can give information on speed and direction of objects, distances, mass and momentum. Biology can be used to study how being in space can affect humans and other forms of life and studies can also be carried out on any forms of life found in space. This lesson, however, is going to focus mainly on chemistry and some of its uses in space science.

The study of chemistry includes finding out about atoms, molecules and chemical reactions. Elements are made up of atoms of one kind. Atoms of elements can react to form molecules, sometimes of the same element (for example Cl2) or sometimes with different elements forming compounds (for example HCl). Bonds form between the different atoms; these can be covalent or ionic, depending on the atoms involved. An element is made up of the same particles (sometimes the atoms are different isotopes) wherever it is found; iron (Fe) is iron whether you find it on Earth or in space, but conditions in space are different from those on Earth and different reactions may occur. Reactions of elements to form more complex compounds, such as amino acids, are key to the study of chemistry in space.

Everyone is probably aware of the Sun, the Moon, the stars and planets; there are definite discrete things that can be seen by the human eye and by using telescopes. But what else is up there? There is a lot of dark space in between these visible objects. Interstellar space is the name given to the space “between the stars” and this is made up of clouds of gases and dust particles, where a lot of interesting reactions are occurring.

Quiz questions

  1. The Miller-Urey experiment was carried out in interstellar space in the 1950s. false
  2. The longest waves on the electromagnetic spectrum are radio waves. false
  3. Amino acids have been found on meteorites which have arrived on Earth from space. true
  4. The Herschel Space Observatory is in Florida, USA. true
  5. Radio telescopes have small antennae because radio waves are short. false
  6. Amino acids can link together to form proteins. true
  7. Ireland is a member of the European Space Agency. true
  8. The Herschel Space Observatory is primarily looking for extra-terrestrial life. false
  9. Amino acids are made up of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. true
  10. William Herschel was the first person so discover amino acids. false

Glossary of terms

amino acid
chemical reaction
electromagnetic spectrum
convection current
covalent bond
formic acid
interstellar space
ionic bond