Astrophysicist Ralf Klessen, a researcher at the Centre for Astronomy of Heidelberg University (ZAH), is part of an international research team in receipt of an ERC Synergy Grant - a highly endowed grant from the European Research Council (ERC). The funding is awarded to the ECOGAL project, in which researchers from Germany, France, and Italy are collaborating to develop an understanding of the Milky Way as a complex "galactic ecosystem". Building on the comprehensive observation of various physical scales, the researchers aim at developing a unifying predictive model for the formation of stars and planets in our home galaxy. The funds will also be used to develop astronomical instruments as well as participate in large-scale projects to systematically survey stars and galactic molecular clouds.
The formation of stars and planets in the Milky Way is governed by the complex interaction of often competing physical influences such as gravity, turbulence, and magnetic fields. In the project "Understanding our Galactic Ecosystem: From the Disk of the Milky Way to the Formation Sites of Stars and Planets" (ECOGAL), the researchers want to observe the underlying scales and processes as a whole rather than in isolation. This represents a paradigm shift in galactic astronomy and astrophysics, as Prof. Klessen emphasises. "A comprehensive model of the Milky Way must consider our galaxy as one large, complex ecosystem in which stars and the related planetary systems can form under very different astrophysical conditions. Similar to Earth, there are different ’climate zones’ that interact with one another in diverse ways. To better understand these relationships and the related feedback processes is a major thrust of our research project", explains the Heidelberg astrophysicist.
To develop a unifying model with high predictive power, the researchers intend to identify the key parameters on all underlying physical scales and determine their influence on the formation of stars and planets as well as the dynamic evolution of the Milky Way as a whole. The ECOGAL project is made up of research groups working in the fields of observational astronomy, numerical astrophysics, instrument development, and astroinformatics. The project is being directed by Dr Patrick Hennebelle from the Department for Astrophysics of the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) in Paris-Saclay. Other members of the research team include Dr Sergio Molinari from the National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) in Rome and Dr Leonardo Testi from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) headquartered in Garching near Munich. Heidelberg will receive approximately 2.7 million euros of the ERC funding. There, under the direction of Prof Klessen, investigations will be carried out on interstellar turbulence as well as the formation and evolution of galactic molecular clouds. Ralf Klessen heads the "Star Formation and Dynamics of Interstellar Matter" working group at the Institute of Theoretical Astrophysics, which is part of the Centre for Astronomy of Heidelberg University.
ERC Synergy Grants are used to fund forward-looking research projects which, due to their complexity, cannot be tackled by individual scientists and their groups. To this end, the European Research Council provides extensive funding for a period of up to six years.