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Introduction to Chemistry of the Universe via Chandra article here & interactive site here. View & download pdf version here.

Click images to enlarge & read descriptions. Image credit: NASA, CXC, M.Weiss, Chandra’s PDF & interactive site - edits by thescienceofreality.

Chemistry, the study of the intricate dances and bondings of low-energy electrons to form the molecules of low-energy electrons to form the molecules that make up the world we live in, may seem far removed from the thermonuclear heat in the interiors of stars and the awesome power of supernovas. Yet, there is a fundamental connection between them.

To illustrate this connection, the familiar periodic table of elements-found in virtually every chemistry class-has been adapted to show how astronomers see the chemical Universe. What leaps out of this table is that the simplest elements, hydrogen and helium, are far and away the most abundant.

The universe started out with baryonic matter in its simplest form, hydrogen. In just the first 20 minutes or so after the Big Bang, about 25% of the hydrogen was converted to helium. In essence, the chemical history of the Universe can be divided into two main-phases: one lasting 20 minutes, and the rest lasting for 13.7 billion years and counting.

After the initial one third of an hour,the expanding Universe cooled below the point where nuclear fusion could operate. This meant that no evolution of matter could occur again until stars were formed a few million years later. Then the buildup of elements heavier than helium could begin. 

Stars evolve through a sequence of stages in which nuclear fusion reactions in their central regions build up helium and other elements (see illustration, below). The energy supplied by fusion reactions creates the pressure needed to hold the star up against gravity. Winds of gas escaping from stars distribute some of this processed matter into space in a relatively gentle manner and supernovas do it violently.

As the enrichment of the interstellar and intergalactic gas has proceeded over vast stretches of space and time, the chemistry of the cosmos has become richer, too. Subsequent generations of stars have formed from interstellar gas enriched in heavy elements. Our Sun, Solar System, and indeed the existence of life on Earth are direct results of this long chain of stellar birth, death, and rebirth. In this way, the evolution of matter, stars and galaxies are all inextricably tied together and so too are astronomy and chemistry.

One of the principal scientific accomplishments of the Chandra X-ray Observatory has been to help unravel how the chemical enrichment by stellar winds and supernovas works on a galactic and intergalactic scale.

For more information & reading, check out links below:

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, #science #chemistry #astronomy #periodic table #periodic table of astronomy #chemistry of universe #Chandra #NASA #chandra x-ray observatory
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