Webb telescope peers into the frozen heart of a space cloud

Webb telescope peers into the frozen heart of a space cloud
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The James Webb Space Telescope looked inside a small molecular cloud 630 light-years away and imaged ice made of different elements.

Molecular clouds are interstellar groups of gas and dust in which hydrogen and carbon monoxide molecules can form. Dense clumps within these clouds can collapse to form young stars called protostars.

The Webb telescope focused on the dark molecular cloud of Chamaeleon I, which appears blue in the new image. A young protostar named Ced 110 IRS 4 glows orange on the left. magazine Nature Astronomy He published a study on Monday that includes the image.

More orange dots represent light from background stars and passing through the cloud. Starlight has helped astronomers identify various frozen molecules within the dark molecular cloud of Chamaeleon I, forming dozens of young stars.

The Webb telescope sees the universe in infrared light, invisible to the human eye. Infrared light can reveal previously hidden aspects of the cosmos and pierce dense clumps of gas and dust that would otherwise obscure vision.

Astronomers used Space observatory to explore a diverse spectrum of some of the coldest ice in the darkest ever regions of a molecular cloud. During a study on the cloud, the international research team identified frozen forms of ammonia, methanol, methane and carbonyl sulfide along with water ice.

These icy molecules may contribute to the formation of stars and planets and even the building blocks of life.

Ice can provide 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 planetary atmospheres as well as amino acids, sugars and alcohols.

“Our results provide insight into the first, dark chemistry stage of ice formation on interstellar dust grains that will morph into centimeter-sized pebbles, where planets form in disks,” said lead study author Melissa McClure, an astronomer and assistant. professor At the Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, in a statement. McClure is the principal investigator of the observation program.

“These observations open a new window into the ways in which simple and complex molecules are formed, necessary 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 suggests that many star and planetary systems that thrive in this particular cloud will inherit the molecules in a highly evolved chemical state,” said astronomer and postdoctoral researcher Will Rocha. 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 have used starlight filtering through the cloud to look for chemical fingerprints and identify elements.

“We wouldn’t be able to observe these ices without Webb,” Webb project scientist Klaus Pontoppidan at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore said in a statement.

“Ice appears as slopes against a continuous background of starlight. In such cold and dense regions, most of the light from the background star is blocked, and Webb’s excellent sensitivity was required to detect starlight and therefore identify ice in the molecular cloud.”

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