The Webb Telescope peers into the frozen core of a space cloud

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The James Webb Space Telescope peered inside a wispy molecular cloud 630 light-years away and saw ice made up of different elements.

Molecular clouds are interstellar groupings of gas and dust where molecules of hydrogen and carbon monoxide can form. Dense clusters within these clouds can collapse to form young stars called protostars.

The Webb telescope focused on the dark molecular cloud Chamaeleon I, which appears blue in the new image. A young protostar, called Ced 110 IRS 4, glows orange to the left. The newspaper natural astronomy published a study on Monday including the image.

More orange dots represent starlight in the background, piercing through the cloud. Starlight has helped astronomers determine the diversity of molecules frozen in the dark molecular cloud Chamaeleon I, which forms dozens of young stars.

The Webb telescope views the universe through infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye. Infrared light can reveal previously hidden aspects of the cosmos and break through dense clumps of gas and dust that would otherwise obscure view.

Astronomers have used the space observatory to discover a diverse range of some of the coldest ice in the darkest regions of a molecular cloud to date. During a study of the cloud, the international research team identified water ice, as well as frozen forms of ammonia, methanol, methane and carbonyl sulfide.

These icy molecules could help form stars and planets – and even the building blocks of life.

Ice can supply planets with carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur, which could lead to the formation of a habitable planet like Earth, where it is used in atmospheres planets as well as amino acids, sugars and alcohols.

“Our results provide insight into the initial dark chemistry stage of ice formation on interstellar dust grains that will turn into centimeter-sized pebbles from which planets form into disks,” said the lead author of the study, Melissa McClure, astronomer and assistant. teacher at the Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, in a press release. McClure is the principal investigator of the observation program.

“These observations open a new window into the formation pathways of the simple and complex molecules that are needed to make the building blocks of life.”

In addition to simple molecules, researchers have seen evidence of more complex molecules.

“Our identification of complex organic molecules, such as methanol and potentially ethanol, also suggests that the many star and planetary systems developing in this particular cloud will inherit molecules in a fairly advanced chemical state,” said the co-author of the study Will Rocha, astronomer and postdoctoral fellow. at the Leiden Observatory, in a statement.

“This could mean that the presence of precursors of prebiotic molecules in planetary systems is a common result of star formation, rather than a unique feature of our own solar system.”

Astronomers used starlight filtering through the cloud to search for chemical fingerprints and identify the elements.

“We simply could not have observed these ice sheets without Webb,” study co-author Klaus Pontoppidan, Webb project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, said in a statement.

“Ices appear as troughs on a continuum of background starlight. In regions this cold and dense, much of the background starlight is blocked, and Webb’s exquisite sensitivity was needed to detect starlight and thus identify the ices in the molecular cloud.

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