Before stars become massive, glowing bodies of hot gas and planets create the conditions to support life, they begin as a deep slab with tiny, icy components. And now NASA has got the best look yet at these ingredients.
“An international team of astronomers using the James Webb Space Telescope has obtained an in-depth inventory of the deepest, coldest ices yet measured in a molecular cloud,” NASA said in a Monday press release. “… This is the most comprehensive inventory yet of ice components available to form future generations of stars and planets before they are heated up during the formation of young stars.”
This inventory was captured in the Chamaeleon I molecular cloud, which is about 500 light-years from Earth and currently hosts “dozens” of stars. The region is part of the 65 light-year wide Chamaeleon cloud complex that was imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope last year.
Using the telescope, astronomers were able to take a closer look at the “frozen forms” of various molecules, including carbonyl sulfide, ammonia, methane and methanol. These molecules contain the basic elements – mainly carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur – needed to form planets and stars. These elements, along with phosphorus, are essential for living organisms.
Astronomer Melissa McClure said the results help paint a fuller picture of the “dark chemistry stage” of ice formation on grains of interstellar dust. She said this stage leads to “centimeter-sized pebbles” that eventually turn into planets.
“These observations open a new window into the formation pathways of simple and complex molecules that are needed to create the building blocks of life,” she said.
They also discovered for the first time more complex molecules deep within molecular clouds, suggesting that many of the stars and planets in the cloud under study may inherit advanced molecules. It also suggests that this is a common post-star formation phenomenon that extends beyond Earth’s solar system.
The findings, which were published Monday in Nature Astronomy, were part of the James Webb Space Telescope’s Ice Age project, which aims to learn more about the molecular components that start as forms of ice and eventually evolve into life itself.
“These are just the first in a series of spectral snapshots we’ll get to see the ice evolve from their initial fusion to comet-forming regions of protoplanetary disks,” McClure said. “This will tell us which mixture of ice – and therefore which elements – may eventually be delivered to the surfaces of terrestrial exoplanets or incorporated into the atmospheres of giant gaseous or icy planets.”
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