Karin Öberg, Ph.D.

Professor of Astronomy, Harvard University

SCOL Project: Distributions, Chemistry and Impact Delivery of Organics During Planet Formation

The solar system assembled from dust and gas in the solar nebula. The initial planet compositions, including hydrospheres and atmospheres, were set by the composition of gas and dust where the planets formed. These initial compositions were then modified in the first few 100 million years by heavy bombardment of asteroid and cometlike objects. In the case of Earth, this bombardment may have delivered key organic material, enabling its origins-of-life chemistry. To obtain a complete view of the chemistry of the young Earth, we need thus to understand the organic chemistry across the solar nebula, from Earth to asteroid and comet-forming nebular regions. Through our research, we constrain the chemical environment within which the Earth and the solar system assembled and explore how our chemical origins compare to those of the myriad exoplanets that are now known to exist.

In particular, we propose to investigate the distribution and evolution of organic material in the solar nebula and solar nebula analogues and to what extent this material is delivered to young planets through impacts. Through astronomical observations, we will characterize the chemistry in analogues to the solar nebula, constraining the distributions of abundant volatiles and organic molecules at the different stages of planet formation. These observations will be used both to reconstruct the solar nebula chemistry and to evaluate how our chemical origin compares with the chemical environment where extrasolar planets are currently assembling. The observations will be complemented with laboratory experiments and models to explore the growth of organic complexity and the overall chemical evolution in these extreme environments. Finally, we will model the survival and further chemistry of prebiotically interesting molecules during impacts.

Karin Öberg is professor of astronomy at Harvard University. Her specialty is astrochemistry, and her research aims to uncover how chemical processes affect the outcome of planet formation, especially the chemical habitability of nascent planets. Her research group approaches this question through laboratory experiments, simulating the exotic chemistry that gives rise to chemical complexity in space, through astrochemical modeling, and through astronomical observations of molecules in planet-forming disks around young stars.

Öberg left Sweden in 2001 to attend the California Institute of Technology; she graduated with a B.Sc. in chemistry in 2005. Four years later she obtained a Ph.D. in astronomy, with a thesis focused on laboratory astrochemistry. In 2009 she moved to the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics with a Hubble fellowship, focusing on millimeter observations of protoplanetary disks, and left in 2012 to join the University of Virginia chemistry department. In 2013 she returned to Harvard as an assistant professor in astronomy, was named the Thomas D. Cabot Associate Professor in Astronomy in 2016, and was promoted to full professor in 2017. Her research in astrochemistry has been recognized with a Sloan fellowship, a Packard fellowship and the Newton Lacy Pierce Prize in Astronomy.

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