Researchers found a way to use methanol to measure magnetic fields in space

Artist's concept of a star in formation with signals from methanol (Image courtesy Wolfgang Steffen/Boy Lankhaar et al. (molecules: Wikimedia Commons/Ben Mills))
Artist’s concept of a star in formation with signals from methanol (Image courtesy Wolfgang Steffen/Boy Lankhaar et al. (molecules: Wikimedia Commons/Ben Mills))

An article published in the journal “Nature Astronomy” describes a research that provides a way to use methanol to measure magnetic fields existing in space. A team of researchers led by Boy Lankhaar of the Chalmers Univerisity in Gothenburg, Sweden, studied the properties of methanol to use it in the calculation of magnetic fields that play an important role in the formation of massive stars.

Methanol, also known as methyl alcohol or wood alcohol, is the simplest form of alcohol. Its presence was detected in space like many other molecules thanks to the signature of its molecule traceable in the emissions captured by radio telescopes. The study of these molecules helps to understand the processes underway in the clouds of gas and dust where new planetary systems form and this new research offers a new tool to measure magnetic fields.

So far, scientists have been able to derive from data collected by detecting in space molecules such as methanol measurements such as temperature, pressure and gas movements in the clouds examined. What was missing so far was the measurement of the magnetic field, another important factor in the formation of the most massive stars. The consequence is that its influence was the subject of discussion but in the absence of measurements there was no definitive answer.

The use of methanol to measure magnetic fields was hypothesized decades ago because its presence doesn’t leave a simple trace in the electromagnetic emissions that pass through the clouds that contain it. This molecule is abundant within them and generates maser emissions, similar to laser with microwaves instead of visible light. The consequence is that those traces are strong and are emitted at specific frequencies, a good help in detecting them.

The problem so far consisted in being able to derive the properties of methanol within a magnetic field and the variations of its magnetic characteristics as a consequence of the magnetic field’s ones. This means that it was necessary to calculate those properties in the smallest details.

It took a collaboration between chemists and astrophysicists to succeed in creating a theoretical model, an operation conducted starting from the principles of quantum mechanics. The agreement with the existing data will allow to provide an interpretation of detections carried out for decades.

This research can be a key to astrochemistry, the science that combines astronomy and chemistry. A progress achieved by a synergy between different scientific disciplines could open the door to new developments in the study of cosmic phenomena obtained thanks to this type of collaboration.

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