The James Webb Telescope has discovered the coldest ice in the known universe – and it contains the building blocks of life
scientists who use James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has detected and measured the coldest ice in the deepest reaches of the interstellar molecular cloud to date. Frozen particles measured minus 440 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 263 degrees Celsius), according to new research published Jan. 23 in the journal Nature. natural astronomy (Opens in a new tab).
Molecular clouds, made up of frozen particles, gases and dust particles, are the birthplace of stars and planets – including habitable planets, like ours. In this latest research, a team of scientists used JWST Infrared A camera to examine a molecular cloud called Chameleon 1, 500 light-years from Earth.
Within the cold, dark cloud, the team identified frozen particles such as carbonaceous sulfur, ammonia, methane, methanol, and others. According to the researchers, these particles will one day become part of the hot core of a growing star, and possibly part of future exoplanets. They also contain the building blocks of habitable worlds: carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and sulfur, a molecular combination known as COHNS.
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“Our results provide insights into the dark initial and chemical phase of ice formation on the interstellar dust grains that will grow into centimeter-sized pebbles from which planets form,” said the study’s lead author. Melissa McClure (Opens in a new tab)said the astronomer at the Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands in the current situation (Opens in a new tab).
Stars and planets form inside molecular clouds like the first chameleons. Over millions of years, gases, ice and dust collapse into more massive structures. Some of these structures heat up to become the cores of young stars. As stars grow, they get swept up in more and more material and get hotter and hotter. Once a star forms, the remnants of gas and dust around it form a disc. Again, this matter begins to collide, stick together and eventually form larger bodies. One day, these clumps may become planets. Even habitable ones like us.
“These observations open a new window into the formation pathways of simple and complex molecules needed to make the building blocks of life,” McClure said in the statement.
JWST sent its first images in July 2022, and scientists are currently using the telescope’s $10 billion worth of instruments to show what kinds of measurements are possible. To identify the molecules within Chameleon I, the researchers used light from stars located behind the molecular cloud. As the light shines toward us, it is absorbed by the dust and particles inside the cloud in distinct ways. These absorption patterns can then be compared to known patterns determined in the laboratory.
The team also found more complex molecules that they couldn’t specifically identify. But this discovery proves that complex molecules form in molecular clouds before they are consumed by growing stars.
“Our identification of complex organic molecules, such as methanol and potentially ethanol, also indicates that many star systems and planets that develop in this particular cloud will inherit molecules in a fairly advanced chemical state,” said a co-author of the study. Will Rocha (Opens in a new tab)The astronomer at the Leiden Observatory said in the statement. “
Although the team was happy to observe COHNS within the cold molecular soup, they did not find a concentration of molecules as high as they would expect in a dense cloud like Chameleon I. How a habitable world like ours acquired icy COHNS remains a major question among astronomers. One theory is that COHNS was delivered to Earth by collisions with icy comets and asteroids.
“This is just the first in a series of spectral snapshots we will get to see how ices evolve from their initial composition to comet-forming regions of protoplanetary disks,” McClure said in the statement. “This will tell us which mixture of ices – and therefore which elements – can eventually be delivered to the surfaces of terrestrial exoplanets or incorporated into the atmospheres of gas giants or icy planets.”