The James Webb Space Telescope (Webb) has made an extraordinary discovery, observing complex organic molecules at a staggering distance of 12 billion light-years away. This breakthrough opens up new possibilities for understanding the origins of life in the universe and provides valuable insights into the early cosmos.
The James Webb Space Telescope continues unraveling the secrets of the universe. For the first time, scientists have discovered complex organic molecules in a galaxy that is over 12 billion light-years away. This milestone discovery was made possible by the state-of-the-art James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and careful scrutiny by the research team, paving the way for new insights into the complex chemical dynamics within the earliest galaxies.
Webb observes complex organic molecules
Joaquin Vieira, a distinguished professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and Kedar Phadke, a promising graduate student, teamed up with Texas A&M University researchers and global scientists. They were able to separate the infrared signals emitted by massive dust grains and the recently observed hydrocarbon molecules in the galaxy. The game-changing findings have been published in the journal Nature.
Understanding Dust-Obscured Galaxies through Infrared Light
Vieira’s interest in this research began during his graduate studies, focusing on distant galaxies, often concealed by dust. Dust grains absorb and re-emit approximately half of the universe’s stellar radiation, making distant objects extremely difficult to spot through ground-based telescopes. This is where Webb comes into play.
Nature’s Magnifying Glass: Gravitational Lensing
The team utilized gravitational lensing, referred to as “nature’s magnifying glass,” to assist Webb. This magnification phenomenon occurs when two galaxies almost perfectly align from Earth’s perspective. As a result, light from the background galaxy is distorted and magnified into a ring-like shape by the foreground galaxy, creating an “Einstein ring.”
Discovering SPT0418-47, an Ancient, Dusty Galaxy
The research spotlight was placed on SPT0418-47, an object detected using the National Science Foundation’s South Pole Telescope. This galaxy, 12 billion light-years from Earth, was magnified 30 to 35 times by gravitational lensing. Its age corresponds to a time when the universe was less than 1.5 billion years old, or approximately 10% of its current age.
Unlocking the Secrets of SPT0418-47
Before the Webb and gravitational lensing, researchers struggled to discern the actual background galaxy behind the dust. Now, data from the JWST reveal that the concealed interstellar gas within SPT0418-47 is rich in heavy elements, pointing to multiple generations of stars that have already expired. The detected molecules, known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH), are believed to be the earliest forms of life’s building blocks.
Insights into Galaxy Formation and Evolution
According to Phadke, the new data allows scientists to observe the galaxy’s atomic and molecular composition for the first time. This groundbreaking information provides invaluable insights into galaxy formation, lifecycle, and evolution.
A Revolutionary Discovery and a Bright Future
The detection of such complex organic molecules at this vast distance is a turning point in observational astronomy. Vieira expresses his excitement and anticipation for future research made possible by this pioneering discovery, which he considers just the beginning of a long, enlightening journey.