In the journal Nature Monday, scientists working with the James Webb Space Telescope announced the discovery of a startling array of icy molecules hidden in a cloud. These are not just molecules, but a kind of interstellar building blocks that will one day combine to form the next generation of stars and planets, and may even lead to life as we know it.
In addition to things like frozen carbon dioxide, ammonia and water, James-Webb was also able to find evidence of so-called “prebiotic molecules” in the cloud. They are simply certain chemicals that are known to help create the conditions for the precursors of life. “Our identification of complex organic molecules, such as methanol and possibly ethanol, also suggests that many stellar and planetary systems developing in this particular cloud will inherit molecules in a fairly advanced chemical state,” said Will Rocha, an astronomer at the Leiden Observatory. . Who helped with the opening. “This could mean that the presence of prebiotic molecules in planetary systems is a common result of star formation, rather than a feature unique to our solar system. »
In other words, we may not be alone in the universe because the ingredients we were born from are extremely common by-products of stellar babies. However, this does not mean that we have found evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial life. We don’t know exactly what will happen to these cloud-borne molecules over time. However, “these observations open a new window on how the simple and complex molecules needed to produce the building blocks of life are formed,” said Melissa McClure, an astronomer at the Leiden Observatory and lead author of the paper.
James Webb played an important role
James-Webb works by using his golden mirrors and high-tech instruments to detect specific wavelengths of light that fall in the infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum. However, most of the light coming from different regions of the universe, especially from star-forming clouds, reaches our point of view on Earth in the form of invisible infrared light. Hence the decisive role of this latest generation telescope.
This machine is literally designed to decipher all that infrared light from deep space and turn it into something our minds and technologies can understand, revealing many cosmic secrets.
When James-Webb observed Chameleon I, he picked up a set of infrared wavelengths associated with icy molecules hidden in the haze and turned them into useful information for a team of scientists using the telescope.
This infographic illustrates the spectrum of electromagnetic energy, highlighting the parts detected by NASA’s Hubble, Spitzer, and Webb space telescopes. NASA and J. Olmsted
In fact, the light emitted by a star in the background of a cloud somehow hits everything in its path to the James-Webb lenses. Specifically, as the waves passed through the cloud itself, they came into contact with all those ice molecules floating inside. Some of the starlight is absorbed by these icy molecules, leaving a sort of fingerprint behind them. These fingerprints are called absorption spectra, and after analyzing them, we can infer what created them. In this case, fingerprints allowed scientists to learn more about ice molecules.
“We simply wouldn’t have been able to observe these ice sheets without Webb,” said Klaus Pontoppidan, a Webb Project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute who was involved in the study. “In such cold and dense regions, most of the light from the background star is blocked, and Webb sensitivity was essential to detect starlight and therefore identify ice in the molecular cloud. »
These plots show spectral data from three instruments from the James Webb Space Telescope. In addition to simple ice water, the scientific team was able to identify frozen forms of a wide range of molecules, from carbon dioxide, ammonia and methane to the simplest complex organic molecule, methanol. NASA, ESA, CSA, Joseph Olmsted (STScI)
In the future, the team intends to see how these ices and prebiotic components in Chamaeleon I change over time as planet-forming disks begin to appear in the region. As Melissa McClure explains, “This will tell us what mixture of ices, and therefore what elements, could eventually be delivered to the surfaces of terrestrial exoplanets or incorporated into the atmospheres of gaseous or icy giant planets. »
CNET.com article adapted by CNETFrance
Image: NASA, ESA, CSA