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    Exploring the formation of habitable planets

    The Bergin Group at the University of Michigan is focused on understanding the chemical composition of the cosmos and how planet formation materialises.

    Today we stand on the cusp of detecting habitable Earth-like planets and are searching for the presence or absence of biomarkers (such as molecular oxygen) in their atmospheres. It is the goal of Dr Edwin Bergin and his co-workers to understand how planets like our own form, with molecules such as water and carbon-bearing organics present on their surfaces. This involves linking what we know about chemistry and physics with frontier telescopes on planet Earth that are capable of searching for life’s pre-materials such as water throughout all the stages of the birth of stars and planets.

    Following the ingredients of life

    Star and planet formation occurs in clouds of gas comprised of molecules.  These molecules, taking the form of simple organics, along with water, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide, carry the ingredients needed for life on forming planets. Bergin and his fellow researchers use telescopes such as the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile or the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope to detect the emissions from key carriers, whether in gaseous form or in the solid state. They then use sophisticated models composed of frontline knowledge of chemical interactions at relevant temperatures and pressures to understand how these molecules form and what their fate is throughout all the stages. Ultimately the goal is to understand how many planets form with water, along with carriers of carbon and nitrogen, present on their surfaces; that is, whether the ingredients needed for life are commonly present or rare in planet formation.

    Background

    Edwin (Ted) Bergin is a Professor of Astronomy at the University of Michigan, where he currently serves as department chair. Bergin graduated with a B.S. in Astronomy and Astrophysics from Villanova University in 1989 and received his Ph.D. in Astrophysics from the University of Massachusetts in 1995. He then moved to the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics where he worked on NASA’s Submillimeter Wave Astronomy Satellite. In 2003, he joined the faculty at the University of Michigan. In 2008, he was the recipient of the Henry Russel Award, the highest honor bestowed by the University of Michigan for junior faculty in recognition of an extraordinary record of accomplishment in scholarly research and conspicuous ability as a teacher. In 2018 he was elected President of Commission H2 (Astrochemistry) of the International Astronomical Union. In 2019 he was awarded the Dannie Heineman Prize for Astrophysics from the American Institute of Physics and the American Astronomical Society for his work using chemistry to probe the physics of star and planet formation and to help trace the molecular origins of life.

    AREAS OF EXPERTISE:

    • Astrochemistry
    • Physics and chemistry of star and planet formation
    • Molecular Astrophysics
    • Planetary Science

    RESEARCH INTERESTS:

    • The Formation of Habitable Planets
    • Star Formation
    • Interstellar Medium
    • Cosmochemistry
    • Cometary Composition and Formation
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