JWST has found the building blocks of life in the darkest depths of space: ScienceAlert

JWST’s unparalleled ability to peer into hearts shrouded in distant clouds has revealed biochemical elements in the coldest, darkest places we’ve seen yet.

In a molecular cloud called Chamaeleon I, located more than 500 light-years from Earth, data from the telescope revealed the presence of frozen carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur—elements vital to the formation of the atmosphere and molecules such as amino acids. ACIDS, collectively known as CHONS.

“These are important components of prebiotic molecules such as simple amino acids — and thus components of life, so to speak.” says astronomer Maria Drozdovskaya from the University of Bern in Germany.

In addition, an international team of researchers led by astronomer Melissa McClure of Leiden University in the Netherlands has identified frozen forms of more complex molecules, such as water, methane, ammonia, carbonyl sulfide and the organic molecule methanol.

New JWST image of the Chamaeleon I molecular cloud. (NASA, ESA, CSA, and M. Zamani)

The dense, cool clusters of molecular clouds are where stars and their planets are born. Scientists think CHONS and other molecules were present in the molecular cloud that gave birth to the Sun, some of which were later delivered to Earth via icy comets and asteroid influences.

Although the elements and molecules discovered in Chamaeleon I are floating around quietly for now, one day they could be caught up in the formation of planets, providing the ingredients for the emergence of life to new planetesimals.

“Our identification of complex organic molecules, such as methanol and potentially ethanol, also indicates that many star systems and planets that develop in this particular cloud will inherit molecules in a fairly advanced chemical state,” explains astronomer Will Rocha From the Leiden Observatory.

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

Chameleon 1 is cold and dense, a dark pool of dust and ice that forms one of the closest active star formation regions to Earth. Therefore, a census of its formation can tell us a lot about the ingredients that go into making stars and planets and contribute to understanding how these ingredients are combined into newly formed worlds.

JWST, with its powerful infrared detection capabilities, is able to see through the dense dust with more clarity and detail than any telescope that has appeared before. This is because infrared wavelengths of light do not scatter dust particles the way shorter wavelengths do, which means that instruments like JWST can effectively see through dust better than optical instruments like Hubble.

Spectra with absorption lines reveal elements in Chamaeleon I. (NASA, ESA, CSA, J. Olmsted/STScI, MK McClure/Leiden Observatory, K. Pontoppidan/STScI, N. Crouzet/Leiden University, and Z. Smith/Open University )

To determine the chemical composition of the dust in the first chameleons, scientists rely on absorption fingerprints. Starlight traveling through the cloud can be absorbed by the elements and molecules in it. Different chemicals absorb different wavelengths. When a spectrum of emitted light is collected, these absorbed wavelengths are darker. Scientists can then analyze these absorption lines to determine which elements are present.

JWST peered deeper into Chamaeleon I to take a tally of its formation than we’ve seen before. It found silicate dust grains, the aforementioned CHONS and other particles, and the ice is much colder than previously measured in space, at about -263 degrees Celsius (-441 degrees Fahrenheit).

They found that, relative to the density of the cloud, the amount of CHONS was less than expected, including only about 1 percent of the expected sulfur. This indicates that the rest of the material may be locked up in immeasurable places — within rocks and other minerals, for example.

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Without more information, it’s hard to measure at this point, so more information is what the team intends to get. They hope to get more observations that will help them map the evolution of these ices, from coating the dusty grains of a molecular cloud to incorporating them into comets and perhaps even scattering planets.

“This is just the first in a series of spectral snapshots we’ll get to see how ices evolve from their initial composition to comet-forming regions of protoplanetary disks,” McClure says.

“This will tell us which mixture of ices – and therefore which elements – could eventually be delivered to the surfaces of terrestrial exoplanets or incorporated into the atmospheres of gas giants or icy planets.”

Research published in natural astronomy.

And you can download wallpaper-size versions from JWST image of Chameleon I’m here.

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