Astronomer Janet Simpson goes higher than the highest mountains to study the building blocks of stars. Using the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes, Janet probes the foggy nurseries where stars are born. As galactic clouds of gas and dust collapse under their own weight, they form broad disks with stellar newborns growing in their centers. These disks are warm enough to emit copious amounts of infrared light – radiation that can only be seen by telescopes that fly high above Earth’s atmosphere. By examining the detailed appearance of these protostellar disks, Janet can learn much about star birth and its sometime accompaniment: the formation of planets.
Janet also uses these orbiting infrared instruments to study the makeup of hot gas clouds in the Milky Way, puzzling out their chemical composition. Her intention is to better understand when such elements as carbon, nitrogen and oxygen became widespread in the Galaxy. That can give us significant clues to how widespread life might be. Without these essential ingredients, rocky planets like Earth won’t form, nor will that dirty bit of chemistry we call life.