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In the last 40 years a wide range of molecules, including neutrals, cations and anions, containing up to 13 atoms—in addition to detections of C60 and C70 — have been found in the harsh environment of the interstellar medium. The exquisite sensitivity and very high spectral and, more recently, spatial resolution, of modern telescopes has enabled the physics of star formation to be probed through rotational line emission. In this article, I review the basic properties of interstellar clouds and the processes that initiate the chemistry and generate chemical complexity, particularly in regions of star and planet formation. Our understanding of astrochemistry has evolved over the years. Before 1990, the general consensus was that molecules were formed in binary, gas-phase, or volume, reactions, most importantly ion-neutral reactions despite the very low ionization in clouds. Since then, observations have indicated unambiguously that there is also a contribution from surface processes, particularly on the icy mantles that form around refractory grain cores in cold, dense gas. The balance between these two processes depends on particular physical conditions and can vary during the life cycle of a particular volume of interstellar cloud.The complex chemistry that occurs in space is driven mostly through interaction of thegas with cosmic ray protons, a source of ionization that enables a rich ion-neutral chemistry. In addition, I show that the interaction between the gas and the dust in cold, dense regionsalso leads to additional chemical complexity through reactions that take place in ices at onlya few tens of degrees above absolute zero. Although densities are low compared to those in terrestrial environments, the extremely long life times of interstellar clouds and their enormous sizes, enable complex molecules to be synthesised and detected. I show that in some instances, particularly in reactions involving deuterium, the rotational populations of reactants, together with spin-selection rules, can determine the detailed abundances. Although the review is mainly focused on regions associated with star formation, I also consider chemistry in other interesting astronomical regions — in the early Universe and in the envelopes formed by mass loss during the final stages of stellar evolution.
Original languageEnglish
Article number043001
Number of pages31
JournalPlasma Sources Science and Technology
Issue number4
Early online date14 Jul 2015
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2015


  • ion-neutral reactions, astrochemistry, interstellar medium


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