Looking to the stars, it might seem that the vastness of space is mostly empty. But in recent years powerful new telescopes, including Alma (the Atacama Large Millimetre Array) and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST, launched in 2021) have further revealed the chemical complexity of the gaps between stars & planets, showing that these extreme and often very cold environments are home to abundant amounts of complex chemistry. These spectroscopic detections have heralded huge changes in our understanding of what makes up what we thought were empty regions of space, identifying over two hundred different chemical species. Yet, as much as we know, scientists still need to answer the question of how these species are formed.

For the multidisciplinary field of astrochemistry – bringing together researchers from astronomy, gas-phase, solid state and more – the high-resolution spectra obtained by these telescopes has provided a wealth of new observational data. They show that much of the observed chemistry occurs within interstellar gas and on icy grains of dust, as well as in the denser environments of young planetary atmospheres and within the cores of comets.

In the hour-long recording of our webinar you’ll meet scientists working at the forefront of astrochemistry research and learn how they recreate the extreme environments of space here on Earth. You’ll then learn how they obtain analogous high-resolution data with which to compare to the spectra sent back from space.

You will also see how data obtained in space and in laboratories is used alongside computational astrochemistry techniques to understand the processes that drive the chemical evolution of galaxies – and how astrochemistry allows us to probe all the way to the edge of biology.

This webinar was inspired by the recent Royal Society of Chemistry Faraday Discussion: Astrochemistry at high resolution, which took place 31 May - 2 June 2023, Maryland, United States.

Our guest speakers


Martin McCoustra, Professor of chemical physics

Martin McCoustra, Professor of chemical physics

Martin McCoustra is a graduate of Heriot-Watt University, UK, (BSc, PhD and DSc) and began his academic career at University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK. He moved to the University of Nottingham, UK, in 1994 and rose through the ranks to hold a personal chair in chemical physics before returning to his alma mater in 2006 as the first chair in chemical physics in Scotland in the 21st Century. Martin’s research interests focus on physical and chemical processes on complex surfaces, in particular the physics and chemistry of the astronomical gas-grain interaction, and plasma modification and erosion of polymers and plastics. He is recognised as one of those who have strongly championed surface science approaches to studying the astrochemistry of grains and ices in space.


Wendy Brown portrait

Wendy Brown, Professor of physical chemistry

Wendy is a Professor of physical chemistry, and Head of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Sussex, UK. She has been at Sussex since 2013; prior to that she worked in the Chemistry Department at University College London, UK. She is a surface chemist, whose work focusses on studying surface processes of relevance to astrophysical environments. In particular, her work uses techniques such as surface infrared spectroscopy, temperature programmed desorption and reflection UV-visible spectroscopy to study model astrophysical ices, grown on graphitic dust grain analogue surfaces. She collaborates with physicists and astronomers to undertake work that can be used to model astrophysical processes and to help interpret observational data.


Serena Viti portrait

Serena Viti, Professor of molecular astrophysics

Serena is professor of molecular astrophysics at Leiden Observatory. She obtained her PhD in 1997 from University College London (UCL), UK, in molecular astrophysics applied to low mass stars before moving into the field of star formation and astrochemistry. Serena has served as the Head of the astrophysics group at UCL from 2016. Her research interests span a very wide range of topics but they are all centred around the role of molecules in space, especially in the dense gas of the interstellar medium and star-forming regions. Her most recent work concentrates on the interpretation of molecular observations in nearby galaxies, and on devising novel techniques for astrochemistry involving machine learning.