/ astrō'kemestrē /
(n) the study of molecules in space - where they are, how they got there, and what they are doing


© Brett A. McGuire 2015

Lagoon Nebula near the Galactic Center

NASA missions have found some of the most chemically diverse organic materials ever detected in astronomical environments yet there is no agreed upon chemical pathway as to their formation. We know from meteorites and, more recently, cometary samples returned by the STARDUST mission that amino acids, the building blocks of life as we understand it, are present in extraterrestrial sources (Elsila et al. 2009). In the last decade, complex gas-grain chemical models have become widely used tools in the attempt to understand the chemical pathways that can result in the species observed and their abundances in interstellar environments. A key goal of these models is to attempt to predict the most likely chemical pathways for the formation of life-essential molecules, such as amino acids. While such methods are valuable, they suffer both from a lack of laboratory data and a lack of observational data with which to constrain them. Thus, laboratory studies and observational follow-ups are vital.

© Brett A. McGuire 2015

Legend Elite femtosecond laser used to generate high-power, broadband THz pulses

For my PhD work, I constructed a spectrometer to measure the far-infrared (THz) absorption spectra of interstellar ice analogs. Such ices may be the dominant source of complex molecule formation in the ISM, and yet their compositions are largely unknown due to the difficulty of characterizing them using known infrared spectra. The THz region of the spectrum, which overlaps well with the new SOFIA observatory’s capabilities, provides the opportunity for unambiguous observation and characterization of these ices once laboratory data are known.

As part of my postdoc, I've transitioned into the microwave/mm/sub-mm region of the spectrum with high-resolution, gas-phase rotational spectroscopy of reactive or transient species. Rotational spectra are, in principle, completely defined by the three moments of inertia of a molecule. Thus, in addition to providing the spectral signatures needed for identifications in the ISM, the exact geometries of these species can be determined as well. In turn, when coupled with high-level ab initio calculations, these geometries provide the precise energetics of a system needed to robustly understand the formation pathways and mechanisms used in models of formation chemistry in the ISM.

© Brett A. McGuire 2014

The Milky Way stretches over the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. In the distance are the glows of the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy and Big Pine, CA.

I am also a member of a team of astronomers working to expand our knowledge of the gas-phase chemical inventories in the ISM through the Prebiotic Molecular Survey of the Sgr B2(N) star-forming region. As a result, I have published the first detection of propylene oxide (CH3CHCH2O), the first chiral molecule found outside our solar system, and carbodiimide (HNCNH) a new astronomical maser. Through observational programs such as this, which rely heavily on complimentary laboratory efforts, I hope to shed light on the processes which can give rise to species such as glycine in the ISM.

Selected Publications

For a full list of publications, please see my CV.

Discovery of the Interstellar Chiral Molecule Propylene Oxide (CH3CHCH2OH)
Brett A. McGuire and P. Brandon Carroll, Ryan A. Loomis, Ian A. Finneran, Philip R. Jewell, Anthony J. Remijan, and Geoffrey A. Blake
Science 2016, 352, 1449.
We report the first detection of propylene oxide (CH3CHCH2OH) in the interstellar medium. This is the first detection of a chiral molecule outside of our solar system. Life relies on chiral molecules, and, because it enables the building of complex chiral structures like helices, often uses exclusively one enantiomer of a given molecule across the entire biosphere. The origin of this homochirality may be able to be traced back to the formation of chiral species in the interstellar medium. A number of proposals for the generation of a slight enantiomeric excess in these regions have been proposed, but there has not been a chiral target for testing these hypotheses until now. (Full Paper)

Molecular Polymorphism: Microwave Spectra, Equilibrium Structures, and an Astronomical Investigation of the HNCS Isomeric Family
Brett A. McGuire, Marie-Aline Martin-Drumel, Sven Thorwirth, Sandra Brünken, Valerio Lattanzi, Justin L. Neill, Silvia Spezzano, Zhenhong Yu, Daniel P. Zaleski, Anthony J. Remijan, Brooks H. Pate, and Michael C. McCarthy
Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics 2016, 18, 22693.
We present the laboratory rotational spectra of the [H,N,C,S] isomeric family: HNCS, HSCN, HCNS, and HSNC at high spectral resolution using a combination of chirped-pulse and cavity-enhanced Fourier-transform microwave spectroscopy. Relative stabilities and formation pathways are discussed. Semi-experimental equilibrium structures are derived based on isotopic substitution measurements and high-level quantum-chemical calculations. An astronomical search in Sgr B2(N) shows a strong detection of HSCN, weak evidence for HNCS, and a non-detection of HCNS and HSNC. Weak masing may be occurring in some transitions of HSCN and HNCS. (Full Paper)

CSO and CARMA Observations of L1157. I. A Deep Search for Hydroxylamine (NH2OH)
Brett A. McGuire, P. Brandon Carroll, Niklaus M. Dollhopf, Nathan R. Crockett, Joanna F. Corby, Ryan A. Loomis, Andrew M. Burkhardt, Christopher Shingledecker, Geoffrey A. Blake, and Anthony J. Remijan
Astrophysical Journal 2015, 812, 76.
A deep search for the potential glycine precursor hydroxylamine (NH2OH) using the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory (CSO) at λ = 1.3 mm and the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy at λ = 3 mm is presented toward the molecular outflow L1157, targeting the B1 and B2 shocked regions. We report non-detections of NH2OH in both sources. We perform a non-LTE analysis of CH3OH observed in our CSO spectra to derive the kinetic temperatures and densities in the shocked regions. Using these parameters, we derive upper limit column densities of NH2OH of ≤1.4 x 1013 cm−2 and ≤1.5 x 1013 cm−2 toward the B1 and B2 shocks, respectively, and upper limit relative abundances of NNH2OH/NH2 ≤1.4 x 10-8 and ≤1.5 x 10−8 , respectively. (Full Paper)

Ignition of Thermite Using the Potassium Chlorate "Rocket" Reaction: A Systematic Demonstration of Reaction Chemistry
Brett A. McGuire, P. Brandon Carroll, Adam N. Boynton, Jeffrey M. Mendez, and Geoffrey A. Blake
Journal of Chemical Education 2015, doi: 10.1021/ed500522c
Presented here is a set of demonstrations that are used as visual tools for engaging students in a discussion of reaction chemistry and thermodynamics. Students are first shown a series of simple exothermic reactions: (1) the reaction of H2SO4 with sugar, (2) the decomposition of KClO3, and (3) the reaction of H2SO4 with KClO3. These three basic reactions are then combined as a pyrotechnic chlorate demonstration in which H2SO4 is used to ignite a KClO3 + sugar mixture. It is finally shown that this latter reaction is very effective for igniting the highly exothermic thermite redox reaction. (Full Paper)

THz and mid-IR Spectroscopy of Interstellar Ice Analogs: Methyl and Carboxylic Acid Groups
S. Ioppolo, Brett A. McGuire, Marco A. Allodi, and Geoffrey A. Blake
Faraday Discussions 2014, 168, 461
A fundamental problem in astrochemistry concerns the synthesis and survival of complex organic molecules (COMs) throughout the process of star and planet formation. While it is generally accepted that most complex molecules and prebiotic species form in the solid phase on icy grain particles, a complete understanding of the formation pathways is still largely lacking. To take full advantage of the enormous number of available THz observations (e.g., Herschel Space Observatory, SOFIA, and ALMA), laboratory analogs must be studied systematically. Here, we present the THz (0.3–7.5 THz; 10–250 cm−1) and mid–IR (400–4000 cm−1) spectra of astrophysically-relevant species that share the same functional groups, including formic acid (HCOOH) and acetic acid (CH3COOH), and acetaldehyde (CH3CHO) and acetone ((CH3)2CO), compared to more abundant interstellar molecules such as water (H2O), methanol (CH3OH), and carbon monoxide (CO). A suite of pure and mixed binary ices are discussed. The effects on the spectra due to the composition and the structure of the ice at different temperatures are shown. Our results demonstrate that THz spectra are sensitive to reversible and irreversible transformations within the ice caused by thermal processing, suggesting that THz spectra can be used to study the composition, structure, and thermal history of interstellar ices. Moreover, the THz spectrum of an individual species depends on the functional group(s) within that molecule. Thus, future THz studies of different functional groups will help in characterizing the chemistry and physics of the interstellar medium (ISM). (Full Paper)

An Observational Investigation of the Identity of B11244 (l-C3H+/C3H-)
Brett A. McGuire, P. Brandon Carroll, Pierre Gratier, Viviana Guzman, Jerome Pety, Evelyne Roueff, Maryvonne Gerin, Geoffrey A. Blake, and Anthony J. Remijan
Astrophysical Journal 2014, 783, 36
Pety et al. have reported the detection of eight transitions of a closed-shell, linear molecule (B11244) in observations toward the Horsehead photodissociation region (PDR), which they attribute to the l-C3H+ cation. Recent high-level ab initio calculations have called this assignment into question; the anionic C3H- molecule has been suggested as a more likely candidate. Here, we examine observations of the Horsehead PDR, Sgr B2(N), TMC-1, and IRC+10216 in the context of both l-C3H+ and C3H-. We find no observational evidence of Ka = 1 lines, which should be present were the carrier indeed C3H-. Additionally, we find a strong anticorrelation between the presence of known molecular anions and B11244 in these regions. Finally, we discuss the formation and destruction chemistry of C3H- in the context of the physical conditions in the regions. Based on these results, we conclude there is little evidence to support the claim that the carrier is C3H-. (Full Paper)


In the last few years I've taken an interest in amateur nature photography and astrophotography. I haven't quite gotten to the point of investing in a dedicated telescope for imaging, but I will give in soon enough. A small selection of my photos are below.

© Brett A. McGuire 2017
View of Lake Wanaka in the south island of New Zealand from the summit of Rocky Mountain on the Diamond Lake trail.
© Brett A. McGuire 2017
A New Zealand sheep questions my presence. The Rob Roy Glacier can be seen in the background.
© Brett A. McGuire 2015
Andromeda as seen from Red Rocks Canyon State Park, CA. 10 minutes of integration at 300 mm (20 x 30s subs). Nikon D5100.
© Brett A. McGuire 2015
The Galactic Center as seen from Red Rocks Canyon State Park, CA. 15 minutes of integration at 16 mm (3 x 300s subs). Nikon D5100.
© Brett A. McGuire 2013
Sunset over the Owens Valley Radio Observatory. In the distance, smoke rises from fires in Yosemite National Forest.
© Brett A. McGuire 2015
The Milky Way rises over Lake Waiau on Mauna Kea.
© Brett A. McGuire 2015
An osteospermum "whirlygig" flower on Caltech's campus.
© Brett A. McGuire 2015
Sunset at the Asilomar Conference Grounds after the Pacific Conference on Spectroscopy and Dynamics.