Webb finds carbon-rich dust grains in the early Universe. Credit: ESA/Webb, NASA, ESA, CSA.

Webb finds carbon-rich dust grains in the early Universe

The dust, comprising a mix of different sizes and types of grains, is created and dispelled into the cosmos through various methods, including supernova events.


Carbon-rich dust grains in the early Universe

In a groundbreaking revelation, the James Webb Space Telescope has identified the unique chemical fingerprint of carbon-dense dust particles in the early universe. Previously, similar signatures have been spotted in our modern cosmos, generally linked to intricate carbon-based molecules, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). However, these complex compounds were unlikely to have existed in the universe’s initial billion years.

Shifting Our Understanding of Early Cosmic Development

An international team, featuring experts from the University of Cambridge, proposes a different theory. They suggest that Webb may have picked up signals from a distinct species of carbon compound: potentially microscopic grains of graphite or diamond, possibly the remnants of the universe’s earliest stars or supernovae. These results, published in Nature, suggest a quicker development of nascent galaxies in the early universe than previously thought.

Unlocking the Mysteries of Cosmic Dust

Far from being vacant, the seeming voids of our universe are frequently teeming with cosmic dust and gas clouds. The dust, comprising a mix of different sizes and types of grains, is created and dispelled into the cosmos through various methods, including supernova events.

These dust clouds play a vital role in universe evolution, serving as nurseries for future stars and planets. However, they also absorb stellar light at certain wavelengths, making some areas of space difficult to observe.


Webb’s Observational Triumph

Capitalizing on the unique qualities of different molecules that interact with specific light wavelengths, the Cambridge-led team was able to use Webb’s extraordinary sensitivity to detect carbon-rich dust grains in the universe’s nascent era.

According to Dr. Joris Witstok from Cambridge’s Kavli Institute for Cosmology, “Carbon-rich dust grains can efficiently absorb ultraviolet light with a wavelength around 217.5 nanometers, which for the first time, we have directly observed in the spectra of very early galaxies.”

Challenging Established Theories

This discovery calls into question existing models, which suggest it would take hundreds of millions of years for PAHs to form. However, the team believes that this might be the earliest and most distant direct signature of this carbon-rich dust grain.

A minute discrepancy in the wavelength where the absorption peaks, peaking at 226.3 nanometers instead of 217.5 nanometers, could hint at a unique composition of early universe cosmic dust.

Future Insights with Webb

Webb’s debut has empowered astronomers to study the light from individual dwarf galaxies from the universe’s first billion years. The telescope enables the exploration of cosmic dust’s origin and its role in the pivotal early stages of galaxy evolution.


“We are planning to work with theorists who model dust production and growth in galaxies,” said co-author Irene Shivaei of the University of Arizona/Centro de Astrobiología (CAB). “This will shed light on the origin of dust and heavy elements in the early universe.”

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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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