SIF 143 Virginia Initiative on Cosmic Origins (VICO)

Project Manager: Eric Herbst

The purpose of this award is to establish an inter-disciplinary and international research program in Cosmic Origins science.

BoV Approved: December 2017

Project Dates: 4/01/2018 – 6/30/2022

Total Funding: $1,000,000

Executive Summary

Among the most important questions in science are those that relate to the origins and prevalence of life in the universe. A $1,000,000 Strategic Investment Fund award approved by the Board of Visitors in December 2017 supports the establishment of the Virginia Initiative on Cosmic Origins to foster collaborations that will transform understanding of the key physical and chemical processes involved in the formation of habitable planets. This investment leverages the University’s close ties to the federally-funded National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) and funding matches from the Max Planck Institute in Garching, Germany and the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden. Based at the University of Virginia, the interdisciplinary research center will be led by faculty from the departments of astronomy and chemistry and will involve colleagues from computer science, environmental sciences and materials science and engineering. Their work with partners outside the University will help to establish UVA’s preeminence in the emerging field of cosmic origins.

Current Status: Completed


The Virginia Initiative on Cosmic Origins (VICO)’s major objective is to become a highly competitive interdisciplinary and international research program in Cosmic Origins, with the overarching goal of understanding better the key physical and chemical processes involved in the formation and evolution of stars and habitable planets.  We have made significant progress in adding to our knowledge of this complex process. The formation of habitable planets occurs at the end of an evolutionary trail starting with interstellar matter in the form of atomic gas and dust, which starts off in regions of large cold interstellar clouds, portions of which subsequently collapse and heat up through a variety of evolutionary stages to form denser and hotter objects known as cores.  These cores develop a warm central region which eventually gets hot enough to form a star. These nascent stars are surrounded by circumstellar disks, from which the dust eventually coagulates to form planets. One of our prime initiatives is a better understanding of the physics of the formation of such disks and the chemistry that occurs on them.  Another of our specialties is the study of how protoplanetary disks develop into planets. The efforts of the VICO initiative have made major contributions to our understanding of the physical and chemical processes involved in each of the evolutionary stages leading to stars and planets.  Our tools (often involving collaborations) have included the use of telescopes, especially radio telescopes, which have enabled us to determine both terrestrial-type and exotic molecules and their concentrations in the diverse stages of star formation and what they tell us about physical conditions such as temperature and density.  More recently, the James Webb Space Telescope, launched in 2021, has become a key tool used by VICO collaboration members through time awarded in a competitive proposal process.

The use of telescopes has been supplemented by the theoretical and laboratory study of what molecules are likely to form under the distinctly non-terrestrial physical conditions present in star formation regions.  Our initiative has already uncovered several highly unusual reactions in the gas and on dust.  Over 250 molecules have been detected in these regions in a fifty-year period, some of which, known as “complex organic molecules”, or COMs, are thought to be the precursors of even larger pre-biological entities. Our initiative has been heavily involved in the theoretical study of how COMs form and what pre-biological molecules such as amino acids can form from them. VICO has also spurred new laboratory initiatives through collaborations with the School of Engineering’s Laboratory for Astrophysics and Surface Physics. Specifically in 2022, new ice experiments are being designed to enable interpretation of upcoming ice observations with JWST, which would have not happened without the SIF support.

In summary, the VICO initiative has published a large number of papers, has been highly visible at international conferences, and has been awarded significant external grant funding in the quest for a better understanding of how interstellar dust, ice, and gas is incorporated into nascent (and potentially habitable) planetary systems.