Hands-on astronomy

Presolar Grain Workshop returns to WUSTL Saturday, Jan. 28, and Sunday, Jan. 29

A workshop that gathers scientists who study tiny bits of stars that were born and died billions of years ago — before the formation of the solar system — is returning to Washington University in St. Louis this year.

The Presolar Grain Workshop is part of a series that was started in 1990 by Donald Clayton, PhD, a physicist and astronomer at Clemson University. Most workshops have been held at Clemson and Washington Univerity, but, in the past five years, two were held at the University of Chicago and the Carnegie Institution.

Sessions begin at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 28, and continue through the weekend in Crow and Compton halls.

Attendees will include 45 astrophysicists from WUSTL’s Laboratory for Space Sciences and other research institutions in the United States as well as from Australia, Brazil and Italy.

The Laboratory for Space Sciences is part of the departments of Physics and of Earth and Planetary Sciences, both in Arts & Sciences, and the McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences.

The presolar grain community likes to call its field of study “science with a microscope rather than a telescope.” It is the only area of astrophysics where scientists can get their hands on the material they are studying and subject it to analysis in the laboratory.

Created in the outflows of red giants and in the bellies of supernovas before they exploded, the mineral grains got caught up in the molecular cloud out of which the Sun and planets formed and then were swept up into asteroids, pieces of which later fell to Earth as meteorites.

The small fraction of the grains that made the extraordinary voyage unaltered provide invaluable clues to the ancient stars, where they were made, and the history and origins of the solar system.

Because the scientists can examine stardust in their laboratories, presolar grain workshops are characterized by unusual scientific interchange between experiment and theory that often sparks new ideas. The program for the upcoming meeting characteristically alternates experiment and theory, isotopic compositions of stardust and models of nuclear processes taking place in stars.

Sponsored by the McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences, the workshop is hosted by Ernst Zinner, PhD, research professor of physics and of earth and planetary sciences.