Nature Research Center

Rachel L. Smith, Ph.D.

Director, Astronomy & Astrophysics Research Laboratory

Postdoctoral Scholar, Astrochemistry, California Institute of Technology, 2011
Ph.D., Astrochemistry/Cosmochemistry (formally, Geochemistry), University of California Los Angeles, 2011

M.S., Astrochemistry/Cosmochemistry (formally, Geochemistry), University of California Los Angeles, 2009
D.V.M., Cornell University, College of Veterinary Medicine, 1998
B.S., Cornell University, 1995

Other Appointments

Assistant Professor, Department of Physics & Astronomy, Appalachian State University
Visiting Scholar, Department of Physics and Astronomy, UNC at Chapel Hill 

Dr. Rachel Smith on Mauna Kea in front of the Keck telescopes
Dr. Rachel Smith on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, with the twin Keck Telescopes in the background.

Dr. Smith is an observational astronomer interested in answering questions related to how our solar system formed and how other solar systems evolve over time. The objects of Smith’s study are the forming stars outside our solar system; these protostars are at a stage of evolution that is analogous to our own Sun when it was forming roughly 4.6 billion years ago, and they are surrounded by gas filled with planet- and life-building molecules which astronomers can observe using powerful telescopes from Earth and space. Studying these forming stars and comparing them to data we have from our Sun and meteorites (the oldest vestiges from the formation of our Solar System) help to address the larger mystery of whether our solar system is unique in the Galaxy. Smith and her colleagues use large (8 to 10-meter) telescopes on mountains in Hawaii and Chile to observe carbon monoxide (CO), an important molecular reservoir for carbon and oxygen, and which is plentiful in the gas surrounding forming stars. Smith’s current interests are the precise interactions between the CO ice and gas in different types of star-forming regions. Dr. Smith is now reducing and analyzing data of massive protostars she observed using the Keck Telescope at Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Smith is interested in comparing the chemical signatures in the gas and ice in these objects, and what they can tell us about formation processes during our solar system’s early beginnings. Smith’s overall goals are to continue to observe a variety of protostellar molecules, and expand her studies to include collaborations in laboratories that simulate interstellar environments. 

When not actively engaged in research, Dr. Smith enjoys teaching undergraduates at Appalachian State University the exciting topic of Astrobiology, which she does through innovative distance-learning technology from her Museum office. She also regularly presents about her research at the Museum, is excited to talk to visitors about astronomy and ongoing scientific discoveries, and helps organize and present for the Museum’s astronomy-related special events. 

Astronomy & Astrophysics Lab

Selected Publications

Smith R. L., Pontoppidan K. M., Young E. D., and Morris. Heterogeneity in 12C/13C abundance ratios toward solar-type protostars (The Astrophysical Journal, submitted). 

Smith, R.L., Pontoppidan, K. M., Blake, G. A., Lockwood, A. C., 2013. Observations of carbon and oxygen isotopic heterogeneity toward protostars ranging in morphology and parent cloud. 44th LPSC, LPI Contribution No.1719, p. 2698 (oral contribution).

Smith R. L., Pontoppidan K. M., Young E. D., Morris M. R. and van Dishoeck E. F. (2009) High-precision C17O, C18O and C16O measurements in young stellar objects: analogues for CO self-shielding in the early solar system. The Astrophysical Journal 701, 163-175.

Smith, R. L., Pontoppidan, K. M., Young, E. D., and Morris, M. R., 2011. Observational signatures of carbon isotope ice-gas fractionation towards solar-type Protostars. Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) Contribution 1608, 1281

Smith, R. L., Pontoppidan, K. M., Young, E. D., and Morris, M. R., 2010. New 12CO/13CO observations in young stellar objects and molecular clouds: implications for 12C/13C in the early solar nebula. Meteoritics & Planetary Science (Supplement), 45, No. 5381, A193.

Complete Publications

Dr. Smith's Blog Posts

Dr. Rachel Smith in front of one of the Keck telescopes. She's in the lower right.
Dr. Rachel Smith in front of the Keck II telescope dome.