Where did we come from?

Angela Speck, associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, studies stardust to answer that question. “We know that after the Big Bang occurred, the only particles that existed were hydrogen and helium,” says Speck. “But we are made from other particles, so how did those particles come to be?”

Speck and her research team look to the stars in search of answers. “B²FH,” a famous paper written in 1957, stated that all atoms in the universe are created by stars through nucleosynthesis, which is how hydrogen atoms are processed to make other elements.

“The new atoms form dust and molecules in space and are incorporated into new stellar systems, planets, and life,” says Speck. “Hence, we are all made of stardust.”

Speck’s research focuses on stellar evolution, astromineralogy, and the study of dust around evolved stars. Stardust is important because it is an essential part of the star-formation process, and it contributes to gas heating and molecule formation. Speck’s research is funded by four grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF), and she regularly collaborates within the other disciplines of geology, chemistry, and mineral physics to fully understand the environments and processes involved.

Astromineralogy, which is the study of the composition, size, crystal structure, and shape of dust grains, is Speck’s main research focus. She uses a multidisciplinary approach involving infrared astronomy to isolate the dust present around both carbon and oxygen-rich evolved stars. Stars and dust grains give off light according to their temperature, with the dust ranging in temperature from lava-hot to cooler than we are. At these range of temperatures, dust grains emit copious amounts of infrared light. However, many wavelengths of infrared light are absorbed by greenhouse gases — water vapor, methane, and carbon dioxide — in the Earth’s atmosphere, so most infrared telescopes are at high elevations in dry places, above as much of the atmosphere as possible. Speck utilizes an observatory in Hawaii at 14,000 feet above sea level and she hopes to use one in a 747 airplane soon to combat this issue. There are also infrared observatories in space, including the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Herschel Space Observatory, that are able to observe the distribution of light from dust.

Cosmic Conversations
Three years ago, Speck began Cosmic Conversations, a monthly lecture series hosted by the department in conjunction with the Laws Observatory and the Central Missouri Astronomical Association. Scheduled on the first Wednesday of the month, the topic of each talk relates to the cosmos. Faculty members from several departments have participated in this event by giving interesting talks on astronomy and cultural aspects of the universe.

New Technology in Teaching
Speck is working with a doctoral student on astronomy education research. Together, they are developing educational technologies in the classroom specifically for astronomy and developing three-dimensional simulations that will aid in the understanding of astronomical concepts. She was recently awarded an NSF grant to develop a proof-of-concept unit to determine whether missions in a three-dimensional virtual-reality environment would improve learning in the field. She believes that students will learn better with these materials.

“Astronomy itself is three-dimensional and moving, so it is better to learn it that way,” says Speck.

Written by Laura Lindsey
Director of Communications and Marketing
The College of Arts and Science
University of Missouri Columbia

Angela Speck