NASA's James Webb Space Telescope has found the "building blocks" of life frozen within the deepest, coldest ice ever measured in a molecular cloud.
The James Webb Space Telescope has uncovered the “building blocks” of life frozen within the deepest, coldest ice ever measured in a molecular cloud in deep space. The discovery was made after the billion-dollar space observatory observed Chameleon 1, an icy cloud 630 light-years from Earth. This deep-space cloud is so cold and icy that the molecules have frozen into dust grains within it. This, in conjunction with images made by Webb’s highly sensitive instruments, allowed scientists to identify molecules of methane, sulfur, nitrogen, and ethanol. All these elements, revealed astrophysicists, are elements necessary for life as we know it. The latest data gathered by the space telescope will help scientists better understand how such elements are distributed in deep space and how the cosmic recipe works for forming planets and possibly even life.
No sugar or spice, but everything ice ❄️
In this molecular cloud (a birthplace of stars & planets), Webb scientists found a variety of icy ingredients. These frozen molecules, like carbon dioxide and methane, could go on to become building blocks of life. https://t.co/1txG9rE0rc pic.twitter.com/zfzAJAiwst
— NASA Webb Telescope (@NASAWebb) January 23, 2023
But Webb discovered more than just the building blocks of life. As explained by NASA, the data gathered by Webb allowed astronomers to discover traces of more complex elements than methanol. While astronomers did not definitively attribute these signals to specific molecules, this provides conclusive evidence, for the first time, of how complex molecules come to be in the icy depths of molecular clouds before stars are even born. Furthermore, scientists revealed that the discovery of complex organic molecules points towards the fact that many star and planetary systems that develop this type of cloud inherit molecules in advanced chemical states. This, in turn, may help in the appearance of life on certain planets. In other words, astronomers say that this could mean the presence of prebiotic molecule precursors in planetary systems is a common part of star formation rather than a unique feature of our own solar system.
How the discovery was made
Given the unique instruments James Webb carries, scientists study the cosmos like never before. The chemical characterization of the ice in the cloud was achieved by studying how light from the background stars was absorbed by the icy molecules within them at specific infrared wavelengths visible to Webb. This process leaves behind chemical signatures known as absorption lines that can be compared to laboratory data to differentiate which ices are present in the molecular cloud.