The Webb telescope peers into the icy heart of a space cloud

The Webb telescope peers into the icy heart of a space cloud
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The James Webb Space Telescope peered inside a tenuous molecular cloud located 630 light-years away and saw ice made of different elements.

Molecular clouds are interstellar clumps of gas and dust where hydrogen and carbon monoxide molecules 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, named Ced 110 IRS 4, glows orange to the left. The newspaper nature astronomy published a study including the image on Monday.

More orange dots represent starlight in the background, breaking through the cloud. The starlight helped astronomers determine the diverse array of molecules frozen within the dark molecular cloud Chamaeleon I, which is forming 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 pierce 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 survey 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 contribute to the formation of stars and planets, and even to the building blocks of life.

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

“Our results provide insights into the initial dark chemical stage of ice formation in interstellar dust grains that will become centimeter-long pebbles from which disk-shaped planets form,” said the study’s lead author, Melissa McClure, astronomer and assistant. professor at the Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, in a statement. McClure is the principal investigator for the observing program.

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

In addition to simple molecules, the researchers saw evidence of more complex molecules.

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

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

The astronomers used the filtering of starlight through the cloud to search for chemical fingerprints and identify the elements.

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

“The ices appear as depressions against a continuum of background starlight. In regions that are this cold and dense, much of the background starlight is blocked, and Webb’s exquisite sensitivity was needed to detect the starlight and thus identify the ices in the cloud. molecular”.

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