Not everyone is aware that the space between the stars isn’t exactly empty. These vast interstellar tracts are filled with a fog of ice and dust particles that is scarcely perceptible. Understanding how this thin particle soup affects the formation of stars and their accompanying planets is the work of astrophysicist Dr. Jean Chiar.
To study these small, dark particles, Dr. Chiar uses infrared telescopes both on the ground and in orbit (including NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy [SOFIA] and Spitzer Space Telescope) to search for the absorption lines that are characteristic of ices, simple organic hydrocarbons, and silicates. While tiny ice-coated particles floating in space may seem like an esoteric field of study, Jean points out that it is exactly these small particles that can aggregate to form water-covered worlds such as Jupiter’s moon Europa. The main ingredient of life – water – eventually comes from the cold mists that waft between the stars.