To see! Webb Telescope finds icy ingredients for organic chemicals in deep space

Astronomers have found key ingredients of life and livable worlds, in a dark, dense cloud of gas about 550 light-years away.

The chemicals that astronomers have recently discovered, clinging to tiny specks of dust in a cold cloud of molecular gas, are not the building blocks of life, but they are the building blocks of building blocks. And these precursors, as chemists call them, could be a fairly common part of the starter pack for newly formed planets and solar systems, according to a recently published study. in the review natural astronomy.

What’s new – Using the Near Infrared Spectrometer (NIRSpec) of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), Leiden University Astronomer Melissa McClure spotted the telltale chemical fingerprints of water ice, as well as carbon dioxide, ammonia, methane and even methanol frozen in a dense gas cloud called Chameleon I.

New stars are forming in the orange region of the Chameleon I molecular cloud, on the left side of this JWST NIRCam image (it’s called a molecular cloud because it’s composed primarily of molecular hydrogen: pairs of hydrogen elements bonded together ). The blue area on the right is a cold, gas-dense region where stars have not yet formed, and it is already seeded with several types of ice. Fader orange stars are in the far background.STScI

New stars are beginning to merge and come to life in the cloud, but the region McClure and his colleagues studied with JWST is the coldest part of the cloud, away from the bustle and heat of the stellar nursery. Eventually, however, that will change. And one day, when planets form around these future stars, their starter package will include surprisingly complex organic molecules — the kind of stuff the building blocks of life are made of. Molecules like those that make up the newly discovered ice creams are the building blocks for things like sugars and amino acids.

“This could mean that the presence of precursors of prebiotic molecules in planetary systems is a common result of star formation, rather than a feature unique to our own solar system,” says the Leiden Observatory astronomer . Will Rochaco-author of the recent study, in a statement to the press.

And that is not the first time astronomers have discovered Ingredients for biochemistry in interstellar space.

Dig into the details — One day, the ice sheets floating in the darkness of Chameleon I will fill the atmospheres of exoplanets with elements like water, carbon dioxide and organic molecules. But so far, what McClure and his colleagues have seen are just a few tiny crystals here and there, clinging to tiny specks of interstellar dust — and absorbing starlight streaming through the cloud from distant stars.

Each type of ice absorbs different wavelengths of light, so looking for telltale dips in the brightness of starlight on the other side of the cloud — NIR38 and J110621 — at those wavelengths, McClure and his colleagues were able to find the chemical fingerprint of several types of ice.

This graph shows the light absorbed by ice particles in several wavelengths, as detected by JWST’s NIRSpec instrument.STScI

“In regions this cold and dense, much of the light from the background star is blocked, and Webb’s exquisite sensitivity was needed to detect starlight and thus identify ices in the molecular cloud. “, Explain Klaus PontoppidanJWST project scientist and co-author of the recent study, in a press release.

And after – The search for ice by McClure and his colleagues in Chameleon I is part of a program they call Project Ice Age, in which astronomers hope to trace what happens to ice, the “dark chemistry” of clouds molecules to comet life on the periphery of newly formed solar systems. JWST will help them gather most of this data.

“This will tell us what mixture of ices – and therefore what elements – may possibly be delivered to the surfaces of terrestrial exoplanets or incorporated into the atmospheres of gas giants or ice planets,” McClure explains in a press release.

Other groups of astronomers also search for ice – especially water – in interstellar “reservoirs”.

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