"These observations open a new window on the formation pathways for the simple and complex molecules that are needed to make the building blocks of life."
Catch Em Cold
The James Webb Space Telescope, which at this point can safely be described as an inveterate record breaker, has spotted yet another superlative cosmic curiosity: the coldest ice in the known universe.
According to a new study published in the journal Nature Astronomy, that interstellar ice got as cold as minus 440 degrees Fahrenheit — just under 11 Kelvin, and spitting distance from absolute zero.
The frigid formations were found as part of a star-forming molecular cloud residing in a region of space called Chamaeleon I, in the southern reaches of the Chamaeleon constellation, approximately 500 light years from Earth. Thanks to the Webb's powerful Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and a healthy, illuminating backdrop of starlight, astronomers were able to spot the frozen molecules that would have hitherto gone unnoticed.
"The ices show up as dips against a continuum of background starlight," said study co-author Klaus Pontoppidan from the Space Telescope Science Institute in a statement. "In regions that are this cold and dense, much of the light from the background star is blocked, and Webb's exquisite sensitivity was necessary to detect the starlight and therefore identify the ices in the molecular cloud."
Tantalizingly, the ice also includes vital elements to forming a habitable planet, collectively known as CHONS: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur. Some, the scientists found, came in the form of organic molecules like methanol and possibly ethanol, as well as other compounds essential to life including carbon dioxide, ammonia, methane, and of course, water.
And that could have massive implications on our understanding of the occurrence of life in the universe, the scientists say.
"Our identification of complex organic molecules, like methanol and potentially ethanol, also suggests that the many star and planetary systems developing in this particular cloud will inherit molecules in a fairly advanced chemical state," explained study co-author Will Rocha, an astronomer at Leiden Observatory, in the statement. "This could mean that the presence of precursors to prebiotic molecules in planetary systems is a common result of star formation, rather than a unique feature of our own solar system."
The scientists were also able to measure the amount of sulfur trapped in the icy dust for the first time, and while the amount was less than expected, they believe that indicates that other CHONS are still present but are trapped in more solid materials and thus avoid detection.
Some details to iron out notwithstanding, the findings may prove essential in understanding the formation of organic molecules.
"These observations open a new window on the formation pathways for the simple and complex molecules that are needed to make the building blocks of life," said study lead author and Leiden astronomer Melissa McClure.
More on the James Webb's findings: James Webb Captures Its First Look At Saturn's Most Mysterious Moon
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