February 4, 2023

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The Webb telescope peers into the frozen heart of a space cloud

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The James Webb Space Telescope peered inside a soft molecular cloud located 630 light-years away and spy snow made of various elements.

Molecular clouds are interstellar gatherings of gas and dust where hydrogen and carbon monoxide molecules can form. Dense clumps within these clouds can collapse to form young stars called protostars.

The Webb telescope focused on the dark molecular cloud Chamaeleon I, which appears blue in the new image. A young protostar, called Ced 110 IRS 4, glows orange to the left. the magazine natural astronomy A study that included the photo was published on Monday.

More orange dots represent the light from the stars in the background, which pierce the cloud. The starlight has helped astronomers identify the diverse range of frozen particles within the dark molecular cloud Chamaeleon I, which makes up dozens of young stars.

The Webb telescope sees the universe through infrared light, which is not visible to the human eye. Infrared light can reveal previously hidden aspects of the universe, penetrating dense collections of gas and dust that would otherwise block view.

Astronomers used it Space observatory to discover a variety of coldest ices in the darkest regions of the molecular cloud to date. During the survey of the cloud, the international research team identified water ice, as well as frozen forms of ammonia, methanol, methane, and carbonyl sulfide.

These icy particles can contribute to the formation of stars and planets – even the building blocks of life.

Ices can supply planets with carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur, which could lead to the formation of a habitable planet like Earth, as they are used in planetary atmospheres as well as amino acids, sugars and alcohols.

said lead study author Melissa McClure, an astronomer and associate professor at the Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, in a statement. McClure is the principal investigator for the surveillance program.

“These observations open a new window on the formation pathways of the simple and complex molecules needed to make the building blocks of life.”

In addition to simple molecules, the researchers saw evidence of more complex molecules.

said study co-author Will Rocha, an astronomer and postdoctoral fellow at the Leiden Observatory, in a statement.

“This could mean that the presence of precursor molecules for prebiotics in planetary systems is a common consequence of star formation, rather than a unique feature of our solar system.”

Astronomers have used starlight filtering through the cloud to search for chemical signatures and identify elements.

“We simply could not have observed these ices without Webb,” study co-author Klaus Pontopidan, Webb’s project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, said in a statement.

“The ices appear as a dip against a continuum of background starlight. In very cold, dense regions, much of the light from the background star is blocked, and Webb’s remarkable sensitivity was necessary to detect starlight and thus identify ices in the molecular cloud.”

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