JWST has found the basic building blocks of life in the depths of the darkest space: ScienceAlert
JWST’s unparalleled ability to peer into the shrouded hearts of distant clouds has revealed the elements of biochemistry in the coldest and darkest place we’ve yet seen.
In a molecular cloud called Chamaeleon I, which is more than 500 light-years from Earth, data from the telescope has revealed the presence of frozen carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur — elements vital to the formation of atmospheres and molecules such as amino acid. acids, collectively known as CHONS.
“These elements are important components of prebiotic molecules such as simple amino acids – and thus ingredients of life, so to speak,” says astronomer Maria Drozdovskaya from the University of Bern in Germany.
In addition, an international team of researchers led by astronomer Melissa McClure of Leiden University in the Netherlands has also identified frozen forms of more complex molecules, such as water, methane, ammonia, carbonyl sulfide and the organic molecule methanol.
Cold, dense clumps in molecular clouds are where stars and their planets are born. Scientists believe that CHONS and other molecules were present in the molecular cloud from which the sun arose, some of which later via an icy comet and asteroid effects.
Although the elements and molecules detected in Chamaeleon I are now floating quietly, they could one day be caught up in planet formation and provide the ingredients needed for life to emerge on new baby planets.
“Our identification of complex organic molecules, such as methanol and possibly ethanol, also suggests that the many star and planet systems developing in this particular cloud will inherit molecules in a fairly advanced chemical state,” explains astronomer Will Rocha of the Leiden Observatory.
“This could mean that the presence of prebiotic molecules in planetary systems is a consequence of star formation rather than a unique feature of our own solar system.”
Chamaeleon I is cold and dense, a dark conglomeration of dust and ice that forms one of the closest active star-forming regions to Earth. A count of its composition can therefore tell us quite a bit about the ingredients that go into the formation of stars and planets and contribute to an understanding of how these ingredients are incorporated into newly formed worlds.
JWST, with its powerful infrared sensing capabilities, is able to see through dense dust with greater clarity and detail than any telescope. That’s because infrared wavelengths of light don’t scatter dust particles the way shorter wavelengths do, meaning instruments like JWST can effectively see through dust better than optical instruments like Hubble’s.
To determine the chemical composition of the dust in Chamaeleon I, scientists rely on absorption signatures. Starlight traveling through the cloud can be absorbed by elements and molecules within it. Different chemicals absorb different wavelengths. When a spectrum of the light that emerges is captured, these absorbed wavelengths are darker. Scientists can then analyze these absorption lines to determine which elements are present.
JWST peered deeper into Chamaeleon I for a composition count than we’ve ever seen before. It found silicate dust grains, the aforementioned CHONS and other molecules, and ice colder than ever before measured in space, at around -263 degrees Celsius (-441 degrees Fahrenheit).
And they found that, for the density of the cloud, the amount of CHONS was lower than expected, including only about 1 percent of the expected sulfur. This suggests that the rest of the material is locked up in places that cannot be measured, for example in rocks and other minerals.
Without more information, it’s hard to estimate at this point, so more information is what the team plans to get. They hope to get more observations that will help them chart the evolution of this ice, from covering the dusty grains of a molecular cloud to their incorporation into comets and perhaps even the seeding of planets.
“This is just the first in a series of spectral snapshots we will take to see how the ices evolve from their initial synthesis to the comet-forming regions of protoplanetary disks,” McClure says.
“This will tell us what mixture of ice – and therefore what elements – can ultimately be delivered to the surfaces of terrestrial exoplanets or absorbed into the atmospheres of giant gas or icy planets.”
The research has been published in Nature Astronomy.
And you can download wallpaper-sized versions from JWST’s image of Chamaeleon I here.
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